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Immigrants flock to DMV offices to seek driver's licenses

About 11,000 people applied by 3 p.m. for driver's licenses for those in the country illegally

Early Friday, the line outside the Granada Hills Department of Motor Vehicles office was already dozens of people deep.

Some huddled under blankets to stave off the cold. Many held envelopes filled with documents they would need once they got inside.

Sonia Soriano started the line more than 12 hours earlier after driving from South Los Angeles with her husband. "I'm nervous," said Soriano, an immigrant from Mexico who lives in the U.S. illegally. She has driven on Los Angeles' streets for years, but has never been allowed to apply for a driver's license.

Soriano was among thousands of people who thronged DMV offices on Friday, the first day that immigrants in the U.S. illegally were allowed to apply for special state-issued licenses. The rollout of the program comes after a decades-long political battle, with critics saying that it rewards those who broke immigration laws and supporters saying that it will improve traffic safety by requiring immigrants who are already driving to study the rules of the road.

Across the state, DMV offices were overloaded with applicants, with 11,000 applying for the special licenses as of 3 p.m., according to DMV spokesman Armando Botello. At one point, the agency's system that manages who is called for appointments was overloaded, he said, although the problem was quickly fixed.

The DMV estimates that more than 1.5 million people will apply for licenses in the coming years under the new law, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 2013.

At the Granada Hills office, one of four new driver's license processing centers opened recently to help handle the anticipated influx of applications, so many people showed up that officials stopped admitting them at one point over concerns about fire regulations.

Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo, who pushed for the law as a member of the state Assembly and Senate, said the large number of immigrants who applied for driver's licenses Friday showed that given an opportunity to comply with the law, immigrants in the country without permission will do so.

"We'll show the nation giving licenses to immigrants is good for highway safety," Cedillo said.

California is now one of 10 states to offer licenses to immigrants, which in this state will feature text explaining that they are "not acceptable for official federal purposes," such as boarding an airplane. Applicants are required to provide documents to prove they live in California and submit a thumbprint, pass vision and written exams and schedule a behind-the-wheel driving test.

An extra $141 million has been budgeted to help handle the anticipated influx of applications. Along with opening new driver's license processing centers, the DMV has hired 900 new employees and launched a public information campaign to get the word out. Immigrant advocacy groups and various foreign consulates have also been working on the issue, offering driver's test preparation classes and seeking to assuage concerns among some in the immigrant community that applying for a license could make them vulnerable to immigration enforcement.

On Friday, many immigrants appeared to be ready to embrace the new program after years of driving with the fear of being pulled over by police and cited for driving without authorization.

Miguel Pineda, 37, was the first person at the Granada Hills DMV office to pass his written driver's test and get a permit, which allows him to drive with another licensed driver. He has six months to schedule and pass a behind-the-wheel test, at which point he will get his full-fledged license.

The Huntington Park resident has been driving in California for 15 years and had his car impounded in 2005, when he was stopped by police and cited for driving without a license. He had to pay nearly $1,500 to get his car back.

"When I saw a cop I'd get scared," said Pineda, whose wife, Sandra Garcia, also had an appointment Friday to take the test.

The Granada Hills office is one of four DMV facilities in the state that will accept walk-in applicants for the new licenses. With 16 of the state's DMV offices booked up with appointments for the next 90 days, according Botello, some applicants decided to try their luck as walk-ins.

Soriano, the South Los Angeles woman who waited overnight in Granada Hills, was the first walk-in applicant there. She left the office disappointed after she failed the written test. She said she had struggled with the questions on traffic signals.

Soriano pledged to "study, study, study a lot" for the next test, which she hopes to take Monday. Like applicants for regular licenses, those seeking the special licenses will have three chances to pass the test.

Data about how many people passed the written test Friday were not immediately available.

Advocates in California have been encouraging immigrants to practice after a large percentage of people in Nevada flunked the written test in the first few weeks after new driver's licenses were offered there.

Carina Leon, 24, of Stanton, said she became something of a de facto driver's education instructor for nearly 20 of her friends and family who hope to take advantage of the new law.

Over a traditional Mexican Christmas Eve meal of red pozole last week, she found out that nearly everyone at the table had made an appointment to apply. "What will the questions be?" they asked her about the test.

On Thursday, Leon hosted an all-day study session, printing out sample tests and questionnaires available on the state's website. On Friday, she accompanied some of them to the DMV office in Stanton, including her brother-in-law Alejandro Albores, who emerged excitedly waving his new driver's permit.

"I passed," he said, hugging Leon.

Albores, 32, a Mexican immigrant who lives in Long Beach, said he has lived in the country illegally for 14 years.

A construction worker, Albores once had his work car impounded after he was caught driving without a license. He had to pay to get the car back — and lost a day of wages.

Before hitting the road, he always made a point to visit a Facebook page where people post information about police checkpoints to see if there were any expected in his area. Out-of-town trips were out of the question.

That changed Friday, his son Luis, 14, happily pointed out.

"Now we can go to Legoland in San Diego," he said.

brittny.mejia@latimes.com

cindy.carcamo@latimes.com

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

Twitter: @brittny_mejia; @thecindycarcamo; @katelinthicum

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