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Historic day as immigrants in U.S. illegally begin getting driver's licenses

California DMV begins accepting driver's license applications from people in the country without permission

After three decades of debate and controversy, immigrants in the country illegally began the process of receiving California driver's licenses.

Friday was the first day the licenses were available. Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation last year allowing such immigrants to get them.

By late in the afternoon, at least 11,000 people had applied for the special licenses.

By 7:30 Friday morning, the line outside the Granada Hills Department of Motor Vehicles office wrapped around the plaza. People held clipboards with DMV license applications. Some were wrapped in blankets to keep themselves warm in the chilly morning.

Pedro Soriano, 38, was first in line, arriving more than 12 hours earlier after driving with his wife from South Los Angeles.

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FOR THE RECORD

11:06 a.m. In earlier versions of the post, Pedro Soriano and Sonia Soriano's last name was misspelled as Sorino.

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The pair were among thousands expected to begin taking advantage of a California law that took effect Friday that allows immigrants in the U.S. illegally to receive state-issued driver’s licenses. Applicants will have to provide documents to verify their identities and prove they reside in California.

They will also have to submit a thumbprint, pass vision and written exams and schedule a behind-the-wheel driving test. The special licenses will feature text explaining that they are "not acceptable for official federal purposes," such as boarding an airplane.

About 45 minutes after Soriano showed up, people started lining up behind him. For his family, a license for his wife will relieve the worry of getting their car impounded if she is caught driving without a license.

"It's the beginning of the year and this is best," Soriano said. "This is her birthday today .... If she can make it and do the reading test, I'll be blessed."

He had his wife study for the test all day New Year's Day.

"I hope she passes," Soriano said, laughing.

Soriano’s wife, who is from Sinaloa, Mexico, has been in California for years and said she's cautiously optimistic she'll pass. Her 12-year-old daughter Kelya stood by her.

"I'm nervous," said Sonia Soriano, 39. "It's my birthday and if I pass I'll be really happy. It's my gift."

She came Friday to take the reading test. But she wouldn’t pass it this day. She said she struggled most with the questions on traffic signals. Soriano said she would “study, study, study a lot” for the next test, which she hoped to take Monday.

“She will get it,” her husband said afterward. “If a cop pulls her over, she has her test. It makes a big difference.”

Kelya said she would study with her mother to help her pass.

Edward Wahba, a San Gabriel resident from Egypt, joined the growing line at 6 a.m., hoping to renew a license that expired in 2007. He drove a few times after it expired and received tickets, so he stopped driving in 2008.

"I came here today trying to reinstate my license again, we'll see how it goes," the 32-year-old said.

Wahba, who came to the U.S. about 12 years ago, said he doesn't know if he'll have to take the test again or pay a reinstatement fee to get it back.

"Hopefully I get my license back without any restrictions," he said. "I'll be very happy because I have driven for a long time and it's too hard to live in this country without driving."

Carina Leon, 24, of Stanton, became a de facto driver’s education instructor for friends and family who are looking to get licenses. Leon already had her driver’s license, but over a Christmas Eve meal of pozole, she hatched a plan to help the others get their own. On Thursday, she hosted an all-day study session for about 10 people from the Tlalpan neighborhood of Mexico City. She printed out sample tests and questionnaires available on the state’s website.

On Friday, Leon tapped her foot and her eyes darted as she waited for her brother-in-law, Alejandro Albores, 32, to finish his driver’s license permit test at the Stanton DMV. She also waited for the results of her boyfriend’s test later in the morning.

When Albores came out, he told her he had passed, saving his new driver’s permit before hugging Leon.

Albores, who lives in Long Beach, said he  has lived in the U.S. illegally for the last 14 years. The construction worker said he has had his car impounded after being caught driving without a license, causing him to lose wages.

“I won’t have that fear any longer,” he said. Turning to Leon he said:  “This is our permit. You helped me study for it. It’s ours. We did it.”

They embraced again and Leon waved goodbye as she headed to check on whether her boyfriend was prepared for his test.

The DMV has prepared for the law for more than a year. An extra $141 million has been budgeted to handle the influx of applications, with the DMV opening four new offices and hiring an additional 900 employees. Appointments to obtain driver's licenses can now be made 90 days in advance instead of 45 days, the department said. More than 1.5 million new applications are expected in the next three years because of the law, according to DMV estimates.

L.A. City Councilman Gilbert Cedillo, who has pushed for such licenses for years, said he felt a "great sense of satisfaction."

"I'm really excited for the people of California because now we'll ensure that every motorist will be licensed, tested and insured," he said. "It was difficult politically to carry a legislation for a community that was vilified, not appreciated, and marginalized."

Armando Botello, DMV deputy director, said licensing drivers who may already be operating automobiles without licenses "will make roads safer for everyone in California."

"We believe a licensed driver is a safer driver," he said. 

Miguel Pineda, 37, has been studying for two weeks, and he was the first one at the Granada Hills DMV to get his permit, which allows him to drive with another licensed driver. He has six months to pass the behind-the-wheel test and get his full-fledged license.

The Huntington Park resident arrived early for his appointment and said he was cold at first, but not nervous.

"I got nervous when it was my turn to take the test," he said. "But it was easy.

Pineda has been driving in California for 15 years and had one car taken in 2005 when he was stopped by police and didn't have a license.

He had to pay close to $1,500 to get his car back, he said.

"When I saw a cop I'd get scared to think he'd stop me and take my car," Pineda. "And even more when my appointment got closer, I didn't want them to stop me and take my car again."

His wife, Sandra Garcia, 34, waited outside the DMV for her 11 a.m. appointment. Pineda reassured his wife.

"I'm hoping it'll go well for her too," he said.

For California news, follow @Brittny_Mejia @theCindyCarcamo

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

8:50 a.m.: This post has been updated with additional comments.

9:17 a.m.: This post has been updated with results of one applicant's test.

9:20 a.m.: This post has been updated with reaction from Sonia Soriano and her family after she failed the reading test.

10:20 a.m.: This post has been updated with a comment from DMV deputy director Armando Botello.

10:20: a.m.: This post has been updated with comments from DMV official Armando Botello and from driver's license applicant Miguel Pineda.

5:17 p.m.: This post has been updated with the number of license applications.

This post was originally published at 6:45 a.m.

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