POLITICS

California braces for driver's license applications from undocumented immigrants

In this Dec. 16, 2011 photo a police officer checks a driver's license at a sobriety check point in Escondido, Calif.  Starting Jan. 1, 2012, police in California can no longer impound vehicles from DUI checkpoints when the driver's only offense is driving without a license. The impounds have been controversial where critics say they are used to drive out illegal immigrants. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

In this Dec. 16, 2011 photo a police officer checks a driver's license at a sobriety check point in Escondido, Calif. Starting Jan. 1, 2012, police in California can no longer impound vehicles from DUI checkpoints when the driver's only offense is driving without a license. The impounds have been controversial where critics say they are used to drive out illegal immigrants. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)  (AP)

California is boosting its Department of Motor Vehicles operations to meet the huge demand for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants it will begin issuing in January.

The state DMV has opened four new offices, and hired nearly 1,000 new workers to help manage an expected 1.4 million applications from undocumented residents, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law allowing undocumented immigrants in California to obtain the special license, which generally looks like the standard state driver’s license but will have marks distinguishing it. The special licenses, for instance, will say “federal limits apply” and on the back say “This card is not acceptable for official federal purposes.”

California budgeted an additional $141 million for handling the special license applications, according to the Times. State officials believe that many of the 1.4 million immigrants will apply in the first three years, beginning Jan. 2, the newspaper said.

"We've been getting ready for over a year," DMV spokesman Armando Botello told the Times. "We are definitely ready."

The special license was the focus of intense debates across the state.

Immigrant-rights advocates did not want a license that was so different from the standard one that it would mark a person as undocumented. They felt it would be a magnet for discrimination by people such as landlords or merchants.

Many Republican lawmakers, as well as groups that favor strict immigration measures, opposed the license altogether, saying it rewards illegal behavior.

Supporters of the law said it would make roads safer by ensuring that people were driving after having passed written and road tests and enabling them to have insurance.

"No longer are undocumented people in the shadows," Brown said when he signed the law in 2013.

Assemblyman Luis Alejo, a Democrat who is chairman of the California Legislative Latino Caucus and the measure's author, said, "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.”

Botello, the DMV spokesman, said it’s difficult to know how many people will apply for the new licenses right away. He said the number of appointments spiked immediately after people could start making them on Nov. 12, but the agency does not specifically track immigrant appointments.

Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said demand for the licenses will be high, but some people might wait to see how others fare in the application process  and to have more time to prepare to take the required written test.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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