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In California on January 1, residents who are living without documentation will be eligible to apply for driver's licenses - that's because of a new law going into effect. The state's Department of Motor Vehicles is expecting 1.6 million immigrants to apply in the first few years. NPR's Nathan Rott reports on preparations for this surge.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: It's a Sunday afternoon at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in central Los Angeles and the pews are packed with about 150 parishioners, not here for a mass, but for a training session. They scribble on notebooks and thumb through pamphlets as presenter after presenter walks up to the lectern and explains AB60 - a law that, in a few week's time, will allow California residents who are living here illegally to be eligible for driver's licenses, and that's most of the people in this room. Juan Gonzalez, a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Police Department, is one of the presenters.
LIEUTENANT JUAN GONZALEZ: We know that the city of LA has a big immigrant population that doesn't have a driver's license and they're driving in the city of LA.
ROTT: They're driving all over the state - in California cities, rural areas, commuting to and from work and school or just traveling, like most people do, only in the shadows.
GONZALEZ: And we know that a lot of the accidents that get caused - we have a lot of hit-and-runs because of the fear because they don't have a driver's license.
ROTT: Which can leave a legal driver - someone with a license - in a bind, and can turn a small incident for the immigrant driving illegally into a misdemeanor or a felony, which leads to arrests, impounding of cars and just generally bad blood between cops and immigrant drivers.
GONZALEZ: So it's actually better for the police department for most of our drivers to be licensed and know how to drive.
ROTT: California isn't the first state to have this kind of law, but California is certainly the biggest. The expected 1.6 million applicants has spurred California's DMV, or Department of Motor Vehicles, to add 800 employees to help with the transition. Community groups and churches, like Holy Spirit, are helping in their own way, preparing people for the written tests and walking them through the needed documentation.
FATHER ALOYSIUS EZEONYEKA: (Speaking foreign language).
I was saying to them take absolute advantage of this and make sure you study very well and pass that exam and be able to get it.
ROTT: This is Father Aloysius Ezeonyeka, or Father Al. He's an immigrant himself so he knows how important it was to him to get his own driver's license.
EZEONYEKA: They have no idea how many years a lot of those people have been lurking under the darkness of the law, not - hoping that nobody catches them.
ROTT: Churchgoer Marta Quinto knows that well.
MARTA QUINTO: You always afraid to be stopped by the police and then they can take your car and, like, pay the ticket - that's the hard part. So I'm excited for this opportunity that we have.
ROTT: And Quinto plans to take full advantage. She's been to every training session, is studying in Spanish and in English and has already set a date.
QUINTO: I did my appointment already and I have it for January 2 at 2 o'clock, so...
ROTT: January 2 at 2 o'clock.
QUINTO: Yep. All ready.
ROTT: That's awesome.
ROTT: A day after the new law goes into effect, hopefully, Quinto says, soon after she'll be able to drive her two kids legally for the first time. Nathan Rott, NPR News.
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