Capitol Alert

Half a million California immigrants seek licenses, exceeding projections

Immigrants line up at a California Department of Motor Vehicles office to register for drivers licenses in Stanton, Calif., Friday, Jan. 2, 2015.
Immigrants line up at a California Department of Motor Vehicles office to register for drivers licenses in Stanton, Calif., Friday, Jan. 2, 2015. AP

A surge of undocumented immigrants seeking driver’s licenses has caught the California Department of Motor Vehicles off guard and underscored the massive interest in the new program.

Just months after driver’s licenses became available to immigrants living in California illegally, the product of legislation advocates had pursued fruitlessly for years before prevailing in 2013, 493,998 have sought licenses. The number has surprised officials who spent months bracing for an influx of new customers by hiring staff, opening new DMV offices and extending hours.

“The interest in this program is far greater than anyone anticipated,” DMV Director Jean Shiomoto said in a statement.

In preparing to offer the new licenses, the DMV estimated that about 1.4 million immigrants would apply over the course of three years. The new figures show they have handled one third of that expected total in three months, a rate double what the DMV expected, although the official estimate of the total number of eligible applicants remains the same.

An initial burst of applicants began to level off in February, said a spokesman for the DMV. He attributed the rapid pace to a mass information campaign that enlisted law enforcement, elected officials, consular authorities and foreign language media to get the word out.

“There’s been a lot of outreach from many groups, many organizations,”said Artemio Armenta, a spokesman for the DMV. “A lot of efforts from every angle, from social media to the news media to community organizations getting the word out – it’s been a big effort across the board.”

Before immigrants can begin the process of taking written and road tests they must demonstrate California residency, a requirement that prompted consternation from advocates worried that many immigrants lack adequate documentation. But the DMV said the vast majority of applicants, 90.8 percent, have had the necessary documents.

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

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