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The Best Year’: California Latino Immigrants Prepare for Driver’s Licenses

Image: Santiago and Villasenor review the test manual as they wait in line at the California Department of Motor Vehicles in Granada Hills

Ginel Santiago (L), 29, and boyfriend Cesar Villasenor (R), 26, review the test manual as they wait in line at the California Department of Motor Vehicles in Granada Hills January 2, 2015. The California Department of Motor Vehicles on Friday begin issuing driver licenses under AB 60, the new law requiring DMV to issue a driver license to applicants regardless of immigration status in Los Angeles. REUTERS/Gus Ruelas (UNITED STATES - Tags: TRANSPORT POLITICS LAW) GUS RUELAS / Reuters

Cecilio Villafán and Mercedes Montalvo sat in the sofa of their San Jose, California home, looking over the driver's permit test questions and studying for what is proving to be one of the biggest game changers for their family - the ability to obtain a driver's license.

"I'm crying because I'm happy; because I know this year is going to be our year," said a tearful Mercedes in Spanish to Telemundo's Cristina Londoño. "It's going to be the best year in more than two decades."

Undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses 0:20

The couple, who have been in the U.S. for over 20 years and whose children are U.S. citizens, are part of an estimated 1.4 million undocumented immigrants expected to apply for California driver's licenses in the next 3 years starting Tuesday, January 2nd.

They already made their appointment; it's scheduled for January 15th. The family discussed what they would be doing once they had their licenses. Their children smiled and eagerly listened as their parents talked of trips to San Francisco. It's just a few minutes away from their home, but the children don't really know it; the family does not venture there by car.

A smiling Cecilio mentioned another destination: "Now I can take you to Disneyland," he said to his smiling kids.

The dad said the new law eliminates his biggest fear - driving without a license with his children in the car, being stopped and finding himself stranded with his family.

California is now one of 10 states allowing immigrants not in the country legally to obtain driver's licenses by proving residency requirements without a social security number. The licenses issued to immigrants without legal status will have a different marking and are not considered a valid form of federal identification.

Those who support California's new law cite a 2013 DMV study that found that undocumented immigrants driving without a license are nearly three times as likely to cause a fatal crash than drivers with a license.

Martha Campos, who has been active in seeking changes for immigrant families in her state, said she wakes up singing in front of her Virgin of Guadalupe statue, whom she calls "Lupita," grateful for the changes she is seeing in 2015.

"It is worth going to the marches, not eating and hunger fasts, since the community is receiving some of the fruits of their labor," she said.

Campos said there are still many undocumented immigrant families who are fearful of giving out information needed to apply for driver's licenses. Organizations have been working to inform the community of the new law and what qualified immigrants need to present when they go to the DMV.

For California immigrant residents like the Montalvos and Campos, the new law allowing families to drive legally is just part of what they see as big changes coming in 2015. Many of these same families are also eligible for President Barack Obama's upcoming executive action limiting deportations for those who qualify.

"They're going to give us driver's licenses, they're going to give us permission to visit our families," said a tearful Mercedes. For her, 2015 is looking to be a very different year.

--Telemundo's Cristina Londoño reported from California.