LOS ANGELES — While tens of thousands of immigrants living in the country illegally are gearing up to apply for a long-sought driver’s license in California starting Jan. 2, others are being urged to think twice.
Immigrant advocates say the vast majority should be able to get licensed without trouble but they want anyone who previously obtained a driver’s license under a false name or someone else’s Social Security number to speak first with a lawyer, fearing a new application could trigger a fraud investigation.
The same applies to immigrants with a prior deportation order or criminal record because federal immigration officials and law enforcement can access Department of Motor Vehicles data during an investigation.
The advice isn’t meant to frighten immigrants from seeking licenses that are meant to make their lives easier – especially because many already risk getting ticketed or having their car impounded simply by driving to work or taking their children to school.
“For the vast majority of people, getting a license is a good decision,” said Alison Kamhi, staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “At the same time, I think it is important people are aware there is some risk.”
The nation’s most populous state is preparing to start issuing driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally in a bid to make the roads safer and ease fears for more than a million people to get behind the wheel. California’s program eclipses the scope and scale of those approved in nine other states, including Nevada, Colorado and Illinois.
California is also requiring all new license applicants to have an appointment and will take walk-in applicants only at four newly created offices.
California expects 1.4 million people to apply for the licenses over the next three years. Officials say they don’t know if there will be an initial surge, but the number of people making license appointments more than doubled to 379,000 during the first two weeks immigrants were allowed to sign up.
Immigrant advocates said they don’t foresee major problems with the rollout of the program because the state has had more than a year to prepare and an ample budget – $141 million spanning three years.
In Nevada, about 90 percent of immigrants failed the required written test during the first few weeks a driver authorization card was offered this year because they were not prepared. In Colorado, the state had no startup funding to issue licenses this year and couldn’t keep pace with demand, leading to monthslong waits.
Jonathan Blazer, advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, said he expects California to license as many immigrants in the country illegally as the nine other states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico combined.
“If California is not able to do this right with the resources it put into this, other states will take notice,” Blazer said.
State officials have touted the licenses as a boon to public safety by getting more drivers trained, tested and insured. Critics have voiced security concerns and questioned the ability of state officials to verify immigrants’ identities.
To help applicants prepare, Mexican consulates and advocacy groups have been hosting driver’s license preparation classes for months. Demand has been high, with more immigrants interested than slots available to learn the rules of the road.