Immigrants living in the U.S. illegally say getting a California driver's license under a new program this year has helped them on the roads — and off.
More than 350,000 immigrants have gotten a driver's license through the program since January, and the state's Department of Motor Vehicles expects to license a million more in the next three years.
For many, driving with a license after years of taking back roads to avoid police means driving with confidence and ease. Some are now driving longer distances to find more work. Others are planning a family vacation this summer where they would have never dared to drive.
Here are the stories of some of the immigrants in California who have obtained the new licenses:
Leticia Aceves, 50, runs a house cleaning business with her husband Mauricio, 49, in Placer County north of Sacramento. Some days she drives about 25 miles; on others, closer to 50 miles.
She and her husband applied for the licenses as soon as they could.
"You have to make a living, and sometimes we tried not to drive, but we need to make a living so we had to drive," Aceves said. "Without a driving license here you feel exposed."
Last year, police stopped her husband for failing to make a full stop. Their car was impounded for 30 days and she said they paid about $3,500 to get it back.
Aceves borrowed a car from her mother to maintain their business. In the past, her daughters have driven them around. The couple has four children, including two college graduates.
She had a license from Mexico that expired, so she knew how to drive before moving to the U.S. in 2001. Having a legitimate license is wonderful, she said.
"You can drive without being scared and feel more comfortable working," she said, adding that the family can also take road trips for vacation.
Ask home caregiver Matthew Manos what he can do now that he has a license and he sighs: "Oh, a lot of things."
It used to take Manos, 52, two hours each way to get to work, using a combination of his feet and public transit. Now he drives 45 minutes each way.
"And when I get there, I'm fresh. I can really work," said Manos, who lives in Dublin, east of San Francisco.
He worked as a domestic aide for a diplomat in Canada and crossed into the U.S. in 2004, knowing that it would be hard to stay employed in his native Philippines. He continues to support his wife and children, who are in the Philippines.
Manos said he is grateful for the law.
"I'm a very shy person," he said, "but I want to let you know I'm very glad and I'm very happy now I can earn more and send more money to my family."
Eleazar Valdez, 37, said getting his driver's license in April has made his life much easier.
After coming down with a sore throat, Valdez bought cold medicine from a big box retailer— something he used to have to ask friends to do for him since he didn't have a license, which is required for the purchase of certain over-the-counter drugs.
The Spanish-language interpreter and aspiring professor has also been able to order a glass of wine when he goes out to dinner with friends near his home in the Central Valley town of Clovis.
"Before I would give my passport or matricula. In some restaurants, they would not even accept that," said Valdez, who came to this country from Mexico at age 13. "Now, it's like, no problem."
On the road, Valdez said, he doesn't freak out anymore when he passes a police car. He's also started driving longer distances, heading beyond the Fresno area for interpreting jobs and for volunteer work on behalf of other immigrants.
"I am spending a lot of money on gas now," he said.
Alberto Garcia said he's been driving with and without a license since moving to the U.S. from Mexico in 1986.
The 45-year-old said he was stopped only once by police but had a license at the time. When he could no longer get a license due to stricter requirements, Garcia said he drove without one to get to his job as a construction worker in Orange County, but never had any trouble.
Ironically, just weeks after getting his new driver's license, Garcia said he was stopped for speeding and handed a $238 ticket. But that's nothing compared to the trouble he could have faced, he said.
"I understand the ticket for not having a license is $350," Garcia said. "In fact, they used to take my friends' cars, and they had to wait a month or pay a 1,200-something-dollar fine to get the car."
While the license is not a valid form of federal identification, Garcia said he's also glad to have a government document with his name.
"Now they know who this person is, via the government, because the DMV is the government," he said.
Rodrigo Rodriguez, 37, of Santa Barbara, spends a big chunk of his day driving: he takes his three children to school and his wife to work, then heads out to his job as a handyman.
Without a license, Rodriguez saw his car impounded three times and had to pay $2,000 each time to get it back.
"They looked for any pretext to stop us, and from there to take away our car," said Rodriguez, who came to the country 14 years ago from Mexico.
Rodriguez said he's always carried insurance, but avoided driving through checkpoints until getting his license in March. Now he drives where he pleases — even beyond the city limits — and plans to travel to visit his father-in-law in Santa Monica and take the kids on a summer vacation, maybe to Universal Studios.
"Before, I used to just say that someday we'd go, but now that we have the license, we will," Rodriguez said.