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Maria Distancia is photographed in a parking lot in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, June 26, 2014. Distancia is one of 1.4 million people expected to apply for a driver's license when the state begins granting them to illegal immigrants. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)

OAKLAND -- The day when Maria Distancia earns her California driver license will be a day of celebration for the 45-year-old domestic worker who's been driving without one for more than a decade.

No more avoiding the island of Alameda and other places where rumors of strict traffic enforcement make her nervous. No worries about car impoundments and fines of up to $1,000 for getting caught. And less fear of being jailed and deported to Mexico every time she takes her 1997 Toyota Camry on the freeway.

"It will bring us more confidence, more peace of mind," Distancia said. "It gives us a protection so we're not afraid to drive."

As the state Department of Motor Vehicles prepares to grant special driver licenses for the first time to more than 1.4 million immigrants in the country illegally, the agency held a hearing Thursday in Oakland -- one of two in the state -- to listen to concerns.

Immigrant advocates traveled from Napa Valley, San Jose, East Palo Alto, Sacramento and as far as Fresno to weigh in before the state finalizes its rules, opens new DMV offices and hires 1,000 more workers to prepare for an influx of aspiring drivers beginning Jan. 1 or earlier.

DMV officials listened as many spoke of wanting a cheaper, easier way of proving California residency to get the new cards. Officials also heard how life-changing many immigrants believe the new licenses will be.


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Milpitas construction worker Antonio Urbina told the DMV that a license will "change my life" and improve the prospects of many who work in the shadows of Silicon Valley.

"We'll be able to drive to get to work, drive our kids to school and if there's an emergency, get to the hospital," the Honduran immigrant said at the hearing held in a Caltrans auditorium in Oakland.

DMV officials have been working on the program, which includes the new cards and rules for obtaining them, since Gov. Jerry Brown in October signed Assembly Bill 60, the culmination of a 15-year fight by Latino lawmakers to give illegal immigrants permission to drive.

Federal inaction on immigration reform propelled Brown's endorsement.

With no sign of movement from the U.S. House of Representatives since the Senate passed a sweeping immigration bill a year ago Friday, the California license might be the closest many undocumented immigrants will get to an official American identity card in a long time.

The day can't come soon enough for Distancia, who fled poverty and unemployment in her Mexican hometown and found her way to Oakland in the early 1990s.

"For 24 years, half of my life, I've been here," she said.

Distancia is a professional caregiver and house cleaner who shares concerns about the cost of getting a new license. She also worries that if the card design looks markedly different from what legal residents have, she could be subject to discrimination. The state is still figuring out what the new card will look like after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security rejected an early version as too similar to regular licenses.

After years of traveling to jobs and errands by foot and long rides on public transit, Distancia took the risk of getting behind the wheel more than a decade ago after she and her young daughter were verbally harassed on a bus. She saved enough money to buy and insure a car.

Driving was also the difference, she said, between barely getting by and making a decent living in the Bay Area.

"To clean houses, you need a car," she said. "You can clean three houses a day instead of just one."

Seasonal farm workers also need cars to follow the crops from one part of the state to another, said San Joaquin Valley immigrants who traveled to the hearing. Some called for a simpler driving test, noting that rural workers rarely have to deal with the diamond lanes and express routes of the urban coast. Others want the state to consider alternative eligibility documents for day laborers who can't afford foreign passports and have little way of proving they live in a crowded apartment.

Many of them are already driving illegally. Advocates have long argued that licensing them will make roads safer by ensuring that everyone learns the rules of the road, passes a driver's test and gets insured.

Unlike the Tuesday hearing in Los Angeles, no activists against illegal immigration spoke out in Oakland. One man briefly questioned the constitutionality of the new state law, but Brian Soublet, the DMV attorney who presided over the regulatory hearing, made clear from the outset that stopping the licenses was not on the table.

To those who oppose the new state law, Soublet said: "You're in the wrong venue. That ship has already sailed."

For a list of required documents to prove residency and obtain a license, go to http://apps.dmv.ca.gov/ab60/doc_req_matrix.pdf