Published Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014 | 2:46 p.m.
Updated Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014 | 2:16 p.m.
Thousands of Nevada immigrants showed up at Department of Motor Vehicle offices Thursday to obtain driver authorization cards under a new law that made the state the 11th nationally to offer driving privileges to people in the country illegally.
In Las Vegas, long lines began forming before the doors opened at 8 a.m. By noon, wait times at the city's two busiest offices were two hours or longer.
But the mood was more jovial than other agonizingly long DMV waits given the excitement on the part of immigrants who are now able legally drive to work.
Fausto Garcia, 51, was among those at the DMV office in North Las Vegas. Garcia, who is from Mexico, said he wanted to get a card as soon as possible. He's been living in Las Vegas for eight years, and driving illegally to his job as a dishwasher.
"It's necessary to drive and I've always been careful," he said.
A law passed by the 2013 Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval allows immigrants in Nevada without citizenship status to obtain driver privilege cards. An increasing number of states have been passing similar laws in recent years, and 11 states and the District of Columbia have enacted such measures.
During a bill-signing ceremony in May, Sandoval — Nevada's first Hispanic governor — called the measure one of the most meaningful pieces of legislation he has enacted.
Backers of the bill say since many immigrants in the country illegally drive anyway, the law will make roads safer because they will required to take a test and have insurance.
By early afternoon, DMV officials had stopped applications because of wait times and a backlog of people waiting to take the written exam, said Nevada Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, a prime sponsor of the law who stopped by one DMV office to see how things were going and ended up staying for hours.
"They had 150 people waiting to take the test so they cut it off for now," Denis said. "I don't think they can get through all of them at this point today."
There was some confusion. Not everyone had all their paperwork and had to be turned away. Others didn't realize that once they paid their fees they had to take the test the same day.
The law specifically prohibits the DMV from using or sharing information for immigration-enforcement purposes.
Authorization cards are good for one year and cannot be used for official identification to board commercial flights or enter federal government buildings.
To obtain a card, immigrants must still show proof of identity as well as Nevada residency. Any documents in a foreign language such as a birth certificate must be translated, and the DMV has a list of about 160 translators posted on its website.
Latinos make up about a quarter of Nevada's residents.
In less congested northern Nevada, lines began forming early but were nothing compared with the throngs seen in the south.
"I was at Reno this morning and there were people waiting outside the doors hours before we opened," said DMV spokesman David Fierro. Through midday the waiting time for service in both Reno and Carson City was about a half hour.
Associated Press writer Sandra Chereb in Carson City contributed to this report.