Thousands of immigrants living here without legal permission will start the new year demonstrating skills in parallel parking and two-point turns in hopes of becoming licensed drivers in Maryland.
Maryland joins a handful of states on Jan. 1 that issue so-called "second-tier" licenses that allow immigrants who do not have full legal documentation to drive on Maryland roads, register cars and obtain insurance. The licenses will not suffice as federal identification.
Nearly 13,000 immigrants have signed up to take driving tests in the coming weeks, according to state officials.
Advocacy groups hail the licensing process as a step toward self-sufficiency for many and as a means to promote safety because drivers must know the rules of the road and can get insurance. Others have decried it: Del. Pat McDonough called it a sign that "Maryland has become the Disney World of America for illegal aliens."
"We provide so many benefits and attractions: drivers licenses, the Dream Act educational subsidies, other benefits," the Baltimore County Republican said.
Del. Ron George, a Republican from Anne Arundel County who is running for governor, said he's concerned about national security, saying that terrorists or gang members could come to Maryland and secure a drivers license.
Many immigrants, though, say the ability to get a license will make their lives easier. Armando Tema, an immigrant from Guatemala who lives in Baltimore, has marked his calendar for Jan. 9, when he has his appointment with the Motor Vehicle Administration.
He's a cook at a restaurant in Catonsville and said with a license, he'll no longer have to rely on the bus for transportation. He said he was beaten and robbed a couple of years ago while waiting for a bus.
"It's hard to take the bus," he said. "You wait for a long time."
Tema, 37, had a drivers license in his home country and had a learners permit — now expired — from before 2009, when Maryland issued licenses regardless of immigration status.
Maryland created the two-tiered system when the federal Real ID Act took effect, mandating that state-issued identification cards meet a variety of security standards, including that they are issued to people who are in the country legally.
Maryland's immigrant licenses will include a notation that they are not valid for federal identification purposes. They cannot be used to gain entrance to a federal building or military base, for example. They also cannot be used to board airplanes, said Christine Nizer, deputy administrator for the Motor Vehicle Administration.
The MVA hired 65 new employees and ran a public education campaign in hopes of making the licensing effort go smoothly. Appointments have been scheduled from Thursday through late February, Nizer said.
"Hopefully, when they come in, they have all the documents they need and they'll be able to take the test," Nizer said.
Immigrants who hope to obtain licenses must follow a two-step process. First, they need paperwork from the state comptroller's office showing that they've filed tax returns for the past two years. About 15,000 people have taken that step, mostly online, said Christine Feldmann, a spokeswoman for the comptroller.
With that certification in hand, prospective drivers then need to show the MVA proof of identity and current residence to start the licensing process. For new drivers, the process is the same as for citizens, including written and driving tests.
The MVA has been working with immigrant rights groups, including Casa of Maryland, to ensure that prospective drivers understand the process.
"The key thing was working with the immigrant community and trying to make sure the information was out there and available to the public," Nizer said.
Nizer said the greatest demand for the new licenses has been at MVA branches in the Washington suburbs: Beltsville, Gaithersburg, Largo and White Oak. Branches in Baltimore, Glen Burnie and Essex also have a number of appointments scheduled.
Casa of Maryland has helped 2,000 people make appointments for driving tests, offering walk-in help and clinics on weekends to help people sign up. Casa representatives said many immigrants aren't comfortable conducting official business online or might need help understanding government paperwork.
A Casa employee will be at the MVA headquarters in Glen Burnie on Thursday and Friday to observe the first appointments and make sure they go smoothly.
"It's a great financial, economic and life opportunity," said Pablo Blank, the immigrant integration programs manager for Casa of Maryland.
Kevin Hernandez, 17, an immigrant living in Baltimore without legal documentation, said he works at two restaurants and is studying for his GED at Baltimore City Community College. The second-tier license will make his life easier, he said.
With a license, "I'll be able to go to school, go to work and visit my family," said Hernandez, who moved to Maryland from El Salvador about six years ago and aspires to be a lawyer.
"I feel like I'm going to make a party when I get my license," he said.
When the new licenses were debated by the General Assembly last year, opponents said the licenses would further solidify Maryland's reputation as a state friendly to immigrants who are in the country without legal permission. And they worried that the licenses would create a loophole that terrorists might exploit, especially given the state's proximity to Washington.
"Anyone who wanted to get an ID could come here and get their first piece of identification," said George, who lobbied in 2009 to end Maryland's short-lived practice of issuing drivers licenses to people without legal documentation. The licenses issued to such immigrants before 2009 expire by 2015.
"The new license puts us right back where we were," George said. "I don't think people understand that this just opened the gates wide open again."
McDonough said if more immigrants move to Maryland to obtain drivers licenses, taxpayers would be burdened with additional costs for education, health care and other services.
Other states that issue, or will soon issue, second-tier licenses include: Illinois, Vermont, Nevada, Colorado, California and Connecticut as well as the District of Columbia, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. Oregon passed a law creating second-tier licenses, but it will be put to a referendum this fall.
Three other states — Alaska, New Mexico and Washington — do not require drivers to show proof of legal residency to obtain a standard drivers license.
It is unclear whether Maryland's immigrant license will be accepted in other states.
"We can't speak for other enforcement that may happen in another jurisdiction," Nizer said.
Despite the limitations for the new licenses, the immigrant community is thrilled to have the option to drive legally, said Blank of Casa of Maryland.
"People were fighting for this opportunity, for this right," Blank said. "They participated and wrote letters. This opportunity is a big win for the community."