Thousands of immigrants lined up to apply for driver’s licenses in California under a law that went into effect on Friday, making the most populous U.S. state the latest to expand the privilege to people in the country illegally.
To handle the crush of new applicants, the Department of Motor Vehicles created special processing centers at four former businesses: a grocery store, a large dry cleaner, a movie theater and a restaurant.
Before noon, nearly 6,200 people had already applied for licenses under the law, said DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez.
The law’s backers say they expect an estimated 1.4 million driving age immigrants to apply for licenses over the next three years. Between 2 million and 3 million unauthorized immigrants are believed to live in California, making them the nation’s largest such population.
Democratic Governor Jerry Brown’s signing of the law in 2013 and its support from some Republican lawmakers marked a significant shift in policy toward immigrants in California.
“When he signed it, he sent a message that California is leading the way in integrating immigrants into our society, into our communities, it recognizes their hard work and their sacrifices in contributing to California society,” said Democratic Assemblyman Luis Alejo, who sponsored the bill.
California joins nine other U.S. states and the District of Columbia that also allow unauthorized immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses.
To meet the concerns of state law enforcement and others, the licenses have a marker that says “federal limits apply,” which Gonzalez said prevents them from being used to board an airline and for federal purposes.
But opponents say California and other states are overstepping their bounds.
“Certainly the states have become catalysts for undermining U.S. immigration law,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federal for American Immigration Reform which calls for restrictions on immigration.
The DMV has no estimate for how many undocumented immigrants have been driving without licenses.
David Cisneros, 46, a security guard from Mexico, said that over the years police had impounded three of his cars after traffic stops because he was in the United States as an undocumented immigrant with no license.
On Friday, he walked out of a DMV processing center in San Jose with an application.
“This is good for everybody and the DMV makes money too,” he said.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Additional reporting by Emmett Berg in San Jose; Editing by David Gregorio)