California gets ready to license undocumented drivers

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The DMV estimates there could be 1.4 million undocumented and unlicensed drivers in California, a number higher than the population of San Diego.

In January, California will begin to offer driver’s licenses to an estimated 1.4 million undocumented immigrants, living and driving in the state illegally.

One of those unlicensed and undocumented drivers is Mexican-born single mother and retirement home worker Evangelina Ramirez. She’s been driving without a license in California for 20 years. “I am driving because it is not a luxury, it is a necessity,” says Ramirez. “I have my kids. I have things to do. I have to work, and I need to drive.”

Ramirez wants a driver’s license and now she’ll be able to get one because of state legislation known as AB 60 in 2013, which will allow people to get a license and drive legally no matter what their legal status is in this country. “This law will basically open the door for the  DMV to allow undocumented drivers to get a license, says Armando Botello, a spokesperson for the California Department of Motor Vehicles. “We are going to be authorized to present a license to anybody who can just prove their identity, prove they are California residents, and who pass all the required tests.”

To qualify for a license, undocumented individuals will have to show the the DMV some form of ID that proves they are who they say they are, such as official identification from their home country or consulate. They’ll also have to provide documents that show they reside in California. That could range from employment records to utility bills. Like every other applicant for a driver’s license, the undocumented will also need to pass vision tests, driving comprehension exams and a behind-the-wheel driving test.

To meet federal Homeland Security regulations, the licenses undocumented drivers receive won’t look like look the ones issued to citizens and legal residents. The front of the license will be stamped with the words “Federal Limits Apply.” There will also be similar language on the back of the license. That’s to prevent the holders of the license from using them to get on commercial aircraft or gain access to federal buildings.

To make sure its ready for what it expects will be a flood of new driver’s license applications after January 1st, the DMV has put the pedal to the metal when it comes to preparation, hiring 900 additional personnel and opening four new enormous offices in the state that will just focus on license applications.

To prepare for what it expects will be a deluge of driver’s license applications, the DMV has hired hundreds of new employees, opened up new offices and will extend its hours at many facilities after January 1st (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The DMV has also participated in hundreds of community meetings, where staffers have explained to people about how to apply for a driver’s license and the importance of being prepared for the driving exams. The DMV has also used humor to inform people, creating an online answer man called “Senor Sabelotodo,” or Mr. Know-It-All, who answers people’s  driver’s license application questions in a suave and stylish way.

As the public outreach campaign continues, immigrant rights advocates, like Alicia Morales with the Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition, says it’s difficult to overstate the importance of getting drivers’ licenses for the undocumented community. “I don’t think we realize what a privilege and what a benefit it is to be able to drive without the fear of a cop stopping you,” says Morales. “And doing something as basic as being able to drive safely on the road is a really big deal for families. It has huge implications.”

Morales says that having the opportunity to drive legally is so important to the undocumented that most are willing to come out of the shadows and accept a driver’s license that clearly marks them as living in the country illegally. “There are some concerns,” says Morales, “but I think from the community members we’ve heard from they prefer to be able to drive on the road with some sort of identification.”

Supporters of offering licenses to the undocumented say it will benefit all motorists. Drivers with licenses, they say, are safer drivers, and are more likely to stay at the scene of an accident instead of fleeing. They also argue that getting licenses means the undocumented will be more likely to apply for automobile insurance. “It’s not just for me,” says undocumented driver Evanglina Ramirez. “It’s for you guys who really have a driver’s licenses. In case of an accident, if I don’t have insurance, what is going to happen to you if you don’t have full coverage? You know? It’s not going to be a benefit for residents and citizens.”

But it’s not all smooth driving when it comes to offering licenses to the undocumented. Critics of the move have problems with the idea of allowing the undocumented to get driver’s licenses, arguing that it rewards the breaking of American immigration laws. Then there are those who fear that no matter how many preparations officials make, already busy DMV offices will be overwhelmed by new drivers’ license applicants, frustrating everyone who has business with the department.

The DMV’s Armando Botello advises people to be prepared. “Check online,” says Botello, “because we have over 20 different services available online through our webpage, so the chances are you may not need to come in person to a DMV office. Also if you must come in person, make an appointment.” But recognizing that even on the best of days, a visit to a DMV office can be a long and trying experience, Botello recommends that people who must visit an office bring a book.