The line outside the Riverhead DMV office this morning. Photo: Peter Blasl

Hundreds of local residents stood outside the Department of Motor Vehicles office this morning in Riverhead to apply for driver’s permits for the first time since a new law took effect Saturday that allows the DMV to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented residents. The line of people trying to enter the DMV office wrapped all the way around the shopping plaza before the office even opened its doors and remained that way through the morning.

“Today is a historic day. It’s unbelievable,” said Liliana Perez, a Hampton Bays resident who took the written exam and obtained her learner’s permit today. She broke down while talking about it. “I can’t believe I will be able to drive without fear, finally, do the things of a normal life…it’s like a dream come true.”

“All the wait, all the pain and fear all these years, it’s been worth it. It’s indescribable,” Perez said.

The Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act — also known as Green Light NY — authorizes the issuance of standard driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants who present proof of identification, proof of residency in NY state, proof of age, pass a written test, complete a five-hour driving course, and pass a road test. The licenses will be valid for driving and as proof of identification but are not valid for federal identification purposes and do not entitle the holder of the license to register to vote.

The law, passed in June and immediately signed by the governor, reverses a 2001 executive order issued by Gov. George Pataki in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks that required driver’s license applicants to prove legal residency in the United States. A dozen other states and the District of Columbia already have similar laws in place.

“We only want to drive, that’s all,” Perez said. “Drive without fear, insure our cars, be safe — that’s it.”

Perez, who works as a housekeeper and has been a resident of the East End since 2010 when she immigrated from Colombia with her family, arrived at the Riverhead DMV at 5 this morning. She said that about 50 people were already waiting. By the time they opened, Perez said that at least 300 to 400 people were waiting in line.  The Riverhead office is one of five DMV offices in Suffolk County.

Courtesy photo

“The process has been very smooth so far, when they opened the doors it was amazing, everybody was smiling, the people waiting, the DMV employees were incredible, there was such joy, everybody was nice and open and all was very organized,” she said. “It felt amazing, being accepted and welcomed that way.”

However, since the passing of the law in mid-June, the planning and implementation of it has been a rocky and controversial affair.

Lawsuits filed by opponents of the law — the latest of which was dismissed by a federal judge on Friday — could have potentially delayed it going into effect. The state did not issue official guidelines until last week, sparking complaints by beneficiaries, immigrant advocates, DMV employees and others. It has been a busy six months for local nonprofit organizations.

“We applaud the collaborative effort form our elected officials and agencies,” SEPA Mujer executive director Martha Maffei said in a statement. “However, advocates in the frontlines have been dealing with community confusion, incorrect information being circulated in the community and concerns since the passage of the legislation six months ago,” she said.

For local residents benefitting from this law, the confusion has only spurred them to reach out to local organizations even more. 

In response, at least a dozen local immigrant advocates have put together forums, created a hotline, produced videos, distributed driver manuals and reached out to as many community members as possible to try and answer the many questions surrounding the law. 

Riverhead resident Bartolo Molina, a carpenter who immigrated from Honduras 17 years ago, said he made an online appointment to apply for his driver’s permit. Community advocates have been advising residents to make appointments in advance, he said. 

“I want to make sure everything is in order. This is too important for me,” he said. “I want to go and make sure I did everything right.”

He also said that having a driver’s license was “a necessity,” especially on the East End of Long Island. He said that without a car, life was “almost impossible“ and that going to work or buying food were ”hard to do without a car.“

“Even if I pay a taxi or ask for a ride, it’s hundreds of dollars and you can’t do it, it’s that or being able to live and eat and pay rent,” he said. 

Vilma C., a 30-year-old Riverhead resident who emigrated from Guatemala 10 years ago and is the mother of a 3-year old boy, agreed.

For Vilma, who works at a farm in Riverhead, said having a license will mean a “better life” for her and her family. 

“I need to take my son to daycare, pick him up, go grocery shopping… and I need to do those things without hiding,” she said. 

“My life and my family’s life is going to change,” she said. “I feel it, and I’m so happy.”

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María del Mar is a contributor to RiverheadLOCAL and the editor and founder of Tu Prensa Local, a Spanish-language local news outlet on Long Island. Maria has won several awards for her work, including a first place best column award from the New York Press Association. Email Maria