How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

DMV gears up to issue driver's licenses to unauthorized immigrants next year

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Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

People wait in line outside a California Department of Motor Vehicles office in Los Angeles on February 13, 2009. The agency is taking on a big task this year: Preparing special driver’s licenses that unauthorized immigrants may begin applying for next January 1.

The proposed state budget addresses a very big task that the California DMV is taking on this year: preparing to issue special driver’s licenses that unauthorized immigrants may begin applying for next January 1.

Last fall, California became the latest among a growing list of states to allow people to apply for a driver's license even if they’re in the country illegally. It’s also the biggest of these states, with an estimated unauthorized immigrant population of roughly 2.6 million.

Not surprisingly, state officials anticipate a crush of about 1.4 million applicants for the new driver's licenses just within the first three years. The new state budget lays out $64.7 million dollars for the DMV to implement the license program.

"This is going to cover the additional offices the DMV is planning to open in different parts of the state," said DMV spokesman Armando Botello. "This is also going to cover the salaries of approximately a thousand new employees and their training."

Plans are also to open five temporary field offices to handle the load, including  in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Democratic Assembly member Luis Alejo of Salinas, who sponsored the license bill, says it's critical that the project is well-funded.
 
"Knowing that there is going to be a large volume of people coming to apply, it is critical that there is proper preparation to implement the bill," Alejo said, "and that the DMV has adequate resources so that when people go visit those offices, they are properly staffed and there are no enormous long lines.”
 
The license program could begin before January if the DMV finishes preparations early. But there's a long laundry list of tasks the agency must accomplish before this happens. Among other things, DMV officials must determine what kind of identity documents applicants who lack a Social Security number can use. Botello said DMV officials have already been meeting with foreign consulates to assess which documents are secure enough.

A driver's license prototype must also be approved by Homeland Security officials to ensure it's different enough from conventional California licenses to comply with the federal Real ID Act.

As proposed in Alejo's bill, the new driver's licenses would be slightly different in that on the front they would bear the letters "DP" (for driving privilege) instead of the "DL" found on conventional California licenses.

There would also be different wording on the back of the new licenses specifying they cannot be used for as identification for federal purposes - for example, in boarding an airplane.

The agency must also allow for public input before final rules are in place.

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