Immigrants living in the state illegally will soon be able to obtain a driver's license under a new program designed to teach the rules of the road to people who likely have been behind the wheel for years anyway.
The Department of Motor Vehicles is expecting thousands of immigrants to begin taking the steps needed to obtain a new state-issued driver's license or learning permit. Beginning at noon today, immigrants 16 years and older can begin making online appointments on the DMV's website to schedule a written test for a Drive Only License.
The program, approved by the General Assembly in 2013, officially begins Jan. 2 and could affect tens of thousands of drivers who cannot establish their legal presence in the U.S. or may not have a Social Security number.
Eight states already offer such licenses, according to the DMV. The number will grow to 10 when Connecticut and California begin issuing them in January.
Connecticut officials have been preparing nearly two years for the new program by upgrading outdated Spanish versions of the written test and driver's manual and creating new tests in French, Polish, Portuguese and Italian. There are also plans to develop a test in Mandarin Chinese. The DMV has also been meeting with immigrant advocacy groups to train them in how to help their clients study the driver's manual and learn where to take the required eight-hour, safe driving practices course.
"Our goal is to make this work as easily as possible for our undocumented residents who may have been waiting a long time to obtain this credential, which can open many doors for them," said DMV spokesman William Seymour.
The license will be stamped with the words "not for federal identification." If immigrants pass the test, there's a three-month practice driving time before the road test is administered, Seymour said.
Some immigrant advocacy groups estimate that as many as 200,000 eligible immigrants live in Connecticut without legal permission, Seymour said.
Werner Oyanadel, executive director of the state's Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, estimates that about 65,000 people could seek Drive Only Licenses. But that number could change depending on whether President Barack Obama's new executive order on immigration will allow parents of drivers who've obtained regular licenses under the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to also acquire regular licenses.
Oyanadel sees the program as a way to ensure public safety and improve the lives of these immigrants and their families.
"The truth of the matter is people are driving back-and-forth from work to home," Oyanadel said, adding that the difference now is that they'll be properly trained. Like other drivers, they must register their vehicles and prove they have purchased insurance.
Participants must bring two forms of identification when they apply for a Drive Only License and two pieces of mail from different sources to prove they're living in Connecticut.
When they schedule an appointment for the written test, they must also sign an affidavit indicating they will file an application to legalize their immigration status when eligible. The DMV also plans to check the applicants' criminal history. If they have a Connecticut felony, they will not be eligible for a Drive Only credential.
Some Republican lawmakers are calling for a public hearing on how the state will issue the licenses.
State Rep. Themis Klarides, the incoming House Republican Leader, has petitioned the co-chairs of the Transportation Committee to conduct the forum on Dec. 8 and asked DMV Commissioner Melody Currey to make a presentation to lawmakers and the public.
“This issue has never been properly aired to the public since it program was rammed through legislature at the end of the 2013 session and we are now one month before it goes into effect,’’ Klarides said in a statement. “We have questions about how the licenses will be issued and how many people may be affected.’’
Starting on Dec. 2, the DMV will have delayed openings in offices across the state to train its staff on the Drive Only License program. The training, which will affect a limited number of offices per day, is scheduled to be completed on Dec. 19.
DMV's Hamden Office, at 1985 State Street, will be closed on Tuesday, December 2, from 7:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. due to DMV staff training. The office will open to the public at 1 p.m. and close at its regularly scheduled time of 4 p.m.
Later this week, several other DMV offices will have limited hours due to staff training for the Drive Only License program. Below is a list of office closings scheduled for that week.
Wednesday, December 3
- Waterbury Office, at 2210 Thomaston Avenue, will be closed from 7:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. due to staff training. The office will open to the public at 1 p.m. and close at its regularly scheduled time of 4 p.m.
Thursday, December 4
- Willimantic Office, at 1557 West Main Street, will be closed from 9:15 a.m. to 2 p.m. due to staff training. The office will open to the public at 2 p.m. and close at its regularly scheduled time of 5:30 p.m.
Friday, December 5
- Norwich Office, at 173 Salem Turnpike, will be closed from 7:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. due to staff training. The office will open to the public at 1 p.m. and close at its regularly scheduled time of 4 p.m.