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California gears up for immigrant driver's licenses

| Friday, Dec. 26, 2014, 10:15 p.m.

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 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 a criminal record because federal immigration officials and law enforcement can access Department of Motor Vehicles data during an investigation.

The advice is not meant to frighten immigrants from seeking licenses that are meant to make their lives easier — especially because many 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.

The state hopes to avoid pitfalls faced elsewhere such as long wait times and high failure rates on the written test by hiring more staff, updating test preparation materials and hosting 180 workshops to tell immigrants what they must do to apply.

California is also requiring all new license applicants to have an appointment and will take walk-in applicants only at four new offices.

“We felt this would be a more orderly way of providing service,” said Armando Botello, a DMV spokesman.

California expects 1.4 million people to apply for the licenses, which include a distinct marking from those issued to U.S. citizens and residents, over the next three years

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