California Prepares for Millions of Immigrants Applying for Driver's Licenses

by | December 16, 2014

By Jeremy B. White

The powerful storm lashing Sacramento kept many people home last Thursday, but Rosario Aguilar was not among them. After eight years of living and driving unlawfully in California, the chance to get a legitimate license led him through sheets of rain to an information session held at a community services center tucked behind an Autozone on Fruitridge Road.

"It's very important," Aguilar said in Spanish, a gray hoodie cinched tightly around his head. He said his job pouring concrete at construction sites requires him to drive extensively. "The license," he said, "we want it, practically, so we can drive obeying the laws of California, which I think is a big step."

State officials are encouraging more than a million undocumented immigrants living in California to step forward and apply for licenses. Reactions in the immigrant community, Aguilar said, span a spectrum.

"There's two things: excitement and doubt," Aguilar said. "A lot of fear, because you never know where all this information is going to go, but also ... we're excited because we want a license to be safer out on the roads."

For years, the efforts to authorize driver's licenses for California's undocumented population centered in the Capitol. Bills to create such licenses reappeared year after year, advancing as far as the desks of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gov. Gray Davis before dying at the tip of a veto pen.

That changed in 2013. Legislation drew support from members of Sacramento's Latino caucus, moderate Democrats and some Republicans. Eager to contrast California's leadership on immigration with Washington's gridlock, Gov. Jerry Brown signed it.

Now the policy has moved from the Capitol corridors to the streets of California, where as many as 1.4 million undocumented immigrants will be able to obtain driver's licenses and insurance starting Jan. 2. It marks a watershed moment for immigrant advocates -- and a monumental logistical undertaking.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles is bracing for an influx of applicants. Community organizations and elected officials are telling a community often accustomed to avoiding attention to gather their documents, study hard and walk into a government building.

"A lot of immigrants are nervous coming to official state offices," said Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville. Alejo followed the bill authorizing new licenses with one ensuring the DMV won't share information with other agencies. "That continues to be one of the main concerns coming from undocumented immigrants: Will they be discriminated against?"

Nevertheless, demand for the new license appears to be strong. In the latter half of November 2013, DMV customers made 175,911 driver's license appointments. This year, the number vaulted to 378,891.

Anticipating that spike, the DMV is spending $67 million to hire 900 employees, extend hours and open four new field offices, including an East San Jose location heralded as the state's largest. After the DMV ran phone banks in concert with Spanish-speaking TV stations such as Telemundo and Univision, "the calls were just pouring in," department spokesman Artemio Armenta said.

Many of the calls, Armenta said, centered on what would be required to obtain a license. Applicants will need documents establishing their identity and California residency.

A list of acceptable documents includes foreign identification cards, which for natives of countries other than Mexico must be supplemented by a birth certificate; and documents that can be used to establish residency, such as mortgage and utility bills, school records and "faith-based documents" such as a letter from a church. Mexican officials successfully lobbied to have consular cards issued to Mexican nationals living in California, or matricula consulars, deemed eligible to prove identity.

Immigrants who cannot produce sufficient documentation have the option to come into the DMV for an interview.

Assuming they can prove who they are, undocumented immigrants will then be asked to follow the same process as legal residents: passing a written exam and a road test. Studies conducted by the DMV show a higher failure rate on the written Spanish language tests than the English version, with three-quarters of Spanish speakers failing on their first attempt.

Advocates say part of the reason involves the lower levels of education among some undocumented immigrants. A representative of an organization that has held test-preparation classes in Los Angeles said another problem involves uneven translations. Words such as "curb" and "trailer" can carry different meanings throughout Latin America.

"Some of the words being used are not quite translating to the majority of Spanish-speaking Mexicans," said Apolonio Morales, political director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Still, Morales said, "the language, the education varies, but it's not so much so that folks can't pass a basic test or won't understand road signs. Those are things you can learn even as an adult."

Proponents of the new law included law enforcement groups such as the California Police Chiefs Association. Whether people are in California legally or not, the group argued, they still need to drive to work and school. Requiring undocumented immigrants already on the road to pass a driving test and obtain insurance would bolster public safety.

"It has nothing to do with if they're in the country legally or illegally," said Julie Powell, a spokeswoman for the California Highway Patrol. "Our main concern is that the people of California are safe, and one way to assist in accomplishing that mission is to make sure California drivers are tested, trained and insured."

Undocumented immigrants who drove without a license in the past risked having their cars impounded when they were pulled over. That will continue, Powell said.

"The only thing that will change is we'll see more licensed drivers, but the way we deal with unlicensed drivers is the same," Powell said.

(c)2014 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)