Mexican immigrant Jesus Moreno emerged smiling from a California Department of Motor Vehicles office on Friday with official permission to do something he's been doing here for more than a decade: driving.
The 30-year-old vending-machine installer, who has forked over hundreds of dollars in traffic tickets and car-impound fees as an unlicensed driver, became one of the first to get a permit under a new program to give driver's licenses to the nation's largest population of immigrants in the country illegally.
"It's not that I want to drive," said Moreno, after leaving a packed DMV office in Orange County. "It's a necessity."
Thousands of people crammed into DMV offices and waited in hours-long lines to apply for a license as California became one of 10 states to authorize immigrants in the country illegally to drive.
The DMV expects to field 1.4 million applications in the first three years of a program aimed at boosting road safety and making immigrants' lives easier. By 3 p.m. Friday, more than 11,000 immigrants had applied, said Jessica Gonzalez, a DMV spokeswoman.
Only four DMV offices were taking walk-in applicants. Hundreds of immigrants donning scarves and gloves and clutching driver handbooks braved near-freezing temperatures in the Orange County city of Stanton to try to get a place in line before dawn.
"This is a big opportunity for me," said Sammy Moeung, a 24-year-old Cambodian immigrant eager to get a license to avoid having to ride his bike to work at his brother's doughnut shop. "Having this is moving a step forward in life, in California and the United States."
Immigrant advocates have cheered the licenses as a way to integrate immigrants who must drive to work and shuttle children to school, though the cards will include a distinctive marking and are not considered valid federal identification. Critics have questioned state officials' ability to verify the identity of foreign applicants, citing security concerns.
Applicants must submit proof of identity and state residency and pass a written test to get a driving permit. Those who don't possess foreign government-issued identification on a list of approved documents can be interviewed by a DMV investigator to see if they qualify.
Immigrants must come back at a later date and pass a road test to get the license, which will be marked with the words "federal limits apply." Those who have licenses from other states are not required to take the road test again, Gonzalez said.
Law enforcement officials have said the program will improve road safety because more drivers will be tested and insured. A DMV study of 23 years of crash data found unlicensed drivers were more likely to cause a fatal collision.
Some immigrants who waited in line for hours Friday failed the required written test and vowed to make an appointment to return on another date to try again. About half of new driver's license applicants fail the written exam, Gonzalez said.
Celia Rayon, a 49-year-old warehouse worker from Anaheim, left the crowded office in Stanton with her new permit in hand. For nearly two decades, the Mexican immigrant has refrained from driving, relying on rides from co-workers to get to her job.
"You can't go out anywhere," Rayon said, adding that she'd like to drive to visit relatives in Georgia once she passes her road test. "Now we're going to feel more secure."