A surge of undocumented immigrants seeking driver’s licenses has surprised the California Department of Motor Vehicles, pouring in at twice the rate officials expected and underscoring massive interest in the new program.
Just three 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 and passing Assembly Bill 60 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. About 203,000 people have received licenses .
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.”
The swell of immigrant license seekers has led to longer wait times for walk-ins at field offices and processing centers, particularly in Southern California. In response, DMV officials have been encouraging customers to handle requests online or make appointments. They added phone lines, responding to customers complaining of getting busy signals when they called for appointments, and restructured the workflow at offices.
“We sort of have a triage system, if you will,” Armenta said. “We were seeing longer lines at the beginning because people were coming in early, hoping to be the first to apply for a license.”
Before immigrants can begin the process of taking written and road tests they must establish their identity and their 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.
The huge turnout also defied worries that immigrants accustomed to remaining inconspicuous would stay away, fearful of walking into government offices and identifying themselves as being in the country illegally even though the law creating the license program keeps applicants’ data confidential and prohibits the Department of Motor Vehicles from sharing it with other government agencies.
But many people have not been deterred. Apolonio Morales, political director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, attributed the extraordinary interest both to California’s investment in staffing and outreach and to basic word of mouth.
“It’s definitely the community talking amongst themselves and saying this is possible,” Morales said. “At the end of the day it’s that card in their hands that makes the difference, and that’s the proof to the rest of the community that it can be done.”
Social media also helped drive interest. A Moreno Valley woman, Erika Paz, launched a Facebook group called Preparándonos para las Licencias, roughly “getting ourselves ready for licenses,” that provides guidance on getting licenses. Its wall teems with people posing logistical questions and sharing tips in Spanish. As of Friday afternoon the group boasted over 15,000 members.
Paz said she empathized with the concerns she hears. She was a teenager when her parents brought her to the country and stayed after their tourist visa expired, making her presence unlawful. She still drove to attend classes and get to work. Now a legal permanent resident who is applying for U.S. citizenship, Paz said she spends upward of three hours a day aiding fellow immigrants.
“I felt it was my responsibility to get people ready to take their tests and help with the procedures and make sure the communities can unite and help each other as much as possible,” Paz said.