Just weeks before California begins to issue driver's licenses to people in the country illegally, the Department of Motor Vehicles has opened four new offices and hired more than 900 additional staffers to help handle the expected flood of applicants.
State officials expect that 1.4 million immigrants who are not lawfully in the country will apply for specially marked licenses during the first three years beginning Jan. 2. An extra $141 million has been budgeted to handle the applications.
"We've been getting ready for over a year," said DMV spokesman Armando Botello. "We are definitely ready."
The agency has opened new offices in Granada Hills; the Orange County city of Stanton; Lompoc, a town in Santa Barbara County; and San Jose.
Applicants can make appointments at any DMV office at https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv or by calling 800-777-0133. The four new offices also accommodate people without appointments.
The DMV is offering extended Saturday hours by appointment for all new license applicants at up to 60 field offices starting Jan. 3. A list of those offices will be made available on the agency's website.
Immigrants were allowed to make appointments for the new year starting Nov. 12. In the 21/2 weeks after that date, 378,891 people made appointments — more than twice the number during the same period last year, according to a DMV spokeswoman.
More than half of the new appointments were for people seeking their first driver's license from the state.
"People are really excited about it," said Rita Medina, a policy advocate for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
Noting that 71% of people who applied for a new driver authorization card in Nevada this year failed the written exam in the first three days of the program, the coalition is offering classes to help applicants pass the test in California, Medina said.
Applicants will have to complete a form and provide documents to verify their identities and show that they reside in California. They will also be required to provide a thumb print, pass vision and written tests and schedule a behind-the-wheel driving test.
The fee for a license is $33, and those who register a vehicle will have to show proof of insurance, which can be obtained through the California Low Cost Auto Insurance program under a state law passed this year.
The special licenses will look like other California licenses but have the words "federal limits apply" on the front and, "This card is not acceptable for official federal purposes," on the back. They cannot be used as identification to board an airplane, for example.
Immigrant-rights advocates fought to minimize the design differences for fear that landlords, merchants and others who may be presented with the cards might discriminate against those they can see are in the country illegally.
The law allowing the special licenses was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October 2013. "No longer are undocumented people in the shadows," Brown said then.
Most Republicans in the Legislature had voted against the measure.
"We heard from Californians with a variety of concerns around this new law, including costs to taxpayers for the program that have been estimated in the millions just to get it started in January," Amanda Fulkerson, a spokeswoman for the Assembly Republican Caucus, said this week.
Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville), chairman of the California Legislative Latino Caucus and the measure's author, has argued from the beginning that it would make California roads safer by requiring immigrants who are already driving to pass written and road-skill tests.
"Our state is getting ready to offer these families a chance to get to work, a chance to bring their children to school and a chance at making it to the hospital during medical emergencies by allowing undocumented Californians to earn a driver's license," Alejo said this week.
In New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez has sought for years to repeal a 2003 law allowing driver's licenses to be issued to residents without regard to immigration status. She has maintained that immigrants from other states have poured into New Mexico to obtain licenses fraudulently.
California officials say they have safeguards in place here to prevent fraud, including the requirement that immigrants document their residency. In addition, the special licenses will have the same high-tech features that have protected regular licenses from counterfeit and altering since 2010.
Those include images visible only under ultraviolet light and special laser perforations.
More information on the license requirement and study materials is available on the DMV website.