Thousands of immigrants in the country illegally are showing up at Department of Motor Vehicles offices Friday, the first chance they have to apply for California driver's licenses.
Some had scheduled appointments, while others braved long lines as walk-ins. The DMV reported that as of noon, its workers had seen more than 6,000 applicants.
In a shopping center that houses the DMV's Granada Hills processing center, about 350 people stood in a line that wrapped around the plaza before doors opened at 8 a.m. Carlos Barrera arrived around 9 p.m. the night before to nab a spot for the first day. He said he didn't want to wait the month he'd been told it would take to get an appointment.
"When you driving with no license it's a risk, it's like a flip of a coin," said Barrera, who has had his car impounded three times in the last three years. "You never know when they're going to stop you."
Pedro Soriano, who was first in line, slept outside the DMV overnight in a lawn chair, while his wife, who needs the license, stayed in a heated car with their daughter.
"She drives no matter what but it's not the same as having a license," Soriano said.
The DMV projects some 1.4 million immigrants will seek licenses over the next three years under the AB 60 law signed by Gov. Brown in 2013. To handle the extra business, the agency has hired more than 900 employees.
California joins nine other states and the District of Columbia in adopting a licensing program for drivers without legal status as a way to improve public safety.
In California, immigrants in the country illegally were allowed to get licenses up until 1994. L.A. council member Gil Cedillo, who led the campaign to reinstate driver's licenses for immigrants when he was in the state Legislature, arrived early in Granada Hills to welcome the first applicants.
"Every Californian will benefit," Cedillo said. "We expect a big reduction in our hit-and-runs. We expect people to be better drivers and expect to move up the ranks of safer highways."
The DMV says initial interest in the program has been strong. Nearly 400,000 appointments for 2015 were made over two weeks in November, a 115 percent increase in activity over the same period last year.
DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez credited the spike to AB 60 applicants. But she said it's not clear whether demand for the program will stay steady, or drop off.
"We hear it's a mixed bag," Gonzalez said. "Some people are like, 'We want to get in right away.' And some people are a little bit more cautious."
Some immigrant rights' advocates have expressed concern about AB 60 applicants handing over personal information to the government, especially if they've had run-ins with immigration authorities.
Still other advocacy groups have pushed hard to get licenses into the hands of immigrant drivers and pressured the DMV to issue a design that would avoid stigmatizing cardholders. After months of back-and-forth with the Department of Homeland Security, the DMV finalized a design that included the letters "DP" for "driving privilege" on the front of the card to distinguish it from a standard driver's license. Also included is wording that the card cannot be used for "official federal purposes."
Critics of the law such as Californians for Population Stabilization said it wasn't fair to reward immigrants in the country illegally with licenses, and questioned whether roads would become safer. Spokesman Joe Guzzardi predicted citizens and legal residents in California would be hurt economically.
Immigrants with their new licenses "are going to be able to drive to job sites, possibly offering to do those jobs at a lower rate of pay than the existing worker," Guzzardi said.
The agency is taking AB 60 applicants at all 170 of its field offices, but has opened four new "processing centers" that will only handle first-time applicants, a group that includes immigrant drivers and teenagers. Gonzalez said the centers are two to three times larger than field offices — the Granada Hills location is a former Albertson's grocery store — and are the only sites that will take walk-ins from new applicants.
Those showing up for appointments must submit documents proving their identity and California residency and take vision and driving knowledge exams.
Those who pass those exams will get a permit to practice driving so they can take a road test at a later date.
"Make sure you study," Gonzalez said to applicants. "We learned in other states that people weren't prepared to take the (written) test and the failure rate was very high."
Most of the applicants at the Granada Hills location were Spanish speakers. But there were also immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
"It's amazing. It's going to change my life," said Bar Mandalevy, a 26-year-old Israeli from Westwood Village.
He said he's been driving without a California license for five years. As a jewelry maker, he has to travel as far as San Francisco to sell his wares at street fairs.
"I just drive with my foreign license, and drive slow," Mandalevy. "It's a very nerve-wracking experience everywhere I go."
AB 60 officially took effect Jan. 1, but Jan. 2 is the first day DMV offices are open in 2015. To handle the extra activity, the DMV has extended the weekday hours of a dozen offices and is keeping 60 offices open Saturday.
This story has been updated.