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Driver’s license law stirs excitement

Illegal immigrants will be able to take wheel in California — legally

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SAN FRANCISCO — Housepainter Carlos Ponce Rodriguez has been driving to work for three years without a license.

Rodriguez doesn't want to be a scofflaw. But because he lacks immigration papers, he can't get a license.

That could change under a new state law that could let an estimated 2 million illegal immigrants get driver's licenses.

Though it doesn't take effect until Jan. 1, the law has already generated excitement and opposition across the state. One recent morning, Rodriguez joined a line stretching down the block outside the Mexican consulate to apply for a consular ID, one identification document allowed under the new driver's-license law.

"I need a license to go to work," said Rodriguez, 23, who drove a taxi in Cancun before moving to Walnut Creek three years ago. "I think it is a good law because not only can one move places in a safer way, but one will also be able to get insurance, and that also brings more safety."

The San Francisco consulate where Rodriguez was waiting used to issue about 150 consular IDs a day. That number doubled the day after the law was signed two weeks ago, and the daily average is now about 250, said spokesman Bernardo Mendez. Other consulates in California reported similar increases.

Undocumented immigrants now take care to avoid police, said San Diego consulate spokesman Alberto Lozano, but with licenses, "they will be more confident driving through the freeways and in the city."

The effects of the new law are showing up elsewhere, too.

The GNC Driving School in Santa Ana, which serves many immigrants from Latin America and Asia, is getting about 25 calls a day from would-be students.

"After the law was signed, it's just been crazy," operator Ricardo Aguirre said.

About a dozen other states allow undocumented immigrants who are state residents to apply for driver's licenses, according to the National Immigration Law Center.

California's new law lets driver's license applicants submit federal taxpayer numbers instead of Social Security numbers. It also lifts a requirement that applicants prove they are legal residents and allows them to submit documents like the Mexican consular ID to verify their identity.

The new law has been both celebrated and criticized, a sign of how it cuts to the heart of the contentious national debate over immigration and the role of undocumented immigrants.

Proponents say letting them get driver's licenses is a matter of public safety. Licensed drivers know the rules of the road and can buy insurance, making the streets safer for everyone, said David Galaviz, legislative director to Democratic state Sen. Gilbert Cedillo, who introduced the bill.

It could also help law enforcement by expanding state data on who is driving, Galaviz said.

Critics say the law compromises national security. In a letter to Gov. Gray Davis, 20 members of the California Republican congressional delegation said the law "erodes our state's ability to protect against terrorist attacks."

Some have accused Davis, who twice vetoed earlier bills, of pandering to Hispanics as he fights to save his job. Chief rival Arnold Schwarzenegger opposes the law and has said he'd try to repeal it if elected governor.

A group called Save Our License is already working to collect signatures to overturn the law by placing a referendum on a ballot next March.

Illegal immigrants who are "breaking the law to be in the country" shouldn't be rewarded "with something that is a privilege, not a right in the United States," said Jeff Evans, a spokesman for the Republican-backed campaign.

Despite some uncertainty over the law's fate, many are still enthusiastic.

Driving could mean a less arduous morning commute for Patricia Barbosa, who cleans hotels in Napa. Barbosa, 22, usually takes a bus to work, but has trouble catching one for early shifts. Instead, she walks 40 minutes to get to work.

Julio Mendez, a 19-year-old construction worker from Napa, sees growing opportunities: "It will allow us to look for other jobs, to comply with the law."

Associated Press writer Maria-Belen Moran contributed to this report.