By Leslie Parrilla
Published on January 1, 2015 San Bernardino Sun
A month after the rollout of California’s massive effort to issue driver’s licenses to 1.5 million undocumented immigrants, the process is working overall in Los Angeles and the Inland Empire. Still, many applicants report a mixed bag of experiences.
Local advocacy groups are scrambling to address overflowing driver’s license preparation classes. Some test-takers are showing up at the Department of Motor Vehicles without studying, and some tech-phobes fear the touch-screen test format that allows four minutes for each question.
Language kinks were being untangled last week for Mixteco speakers after confusion over whether translators could assist during the written and driving exam.
“The community still has a lot of questions or concerns,” said Ben Wood, organizer at the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center, which offers driver’s license preparation classes. “But I think they’re (the DMV) doing the best that they can and bending over backwards. Aside from a very few exceptions, the agency has been doing a very good job.”
The Legislature allocated $141 million to the DMV for implementation of AB 60, which took effect at the beginning of the year.
Demand for the licenses has been high, with applicants filling offices from Culver City to the IE. In the San Fernando Valley, a new DMV office opened in Granada Hills to accommodate the flood of applicants.
Each week the DMV updates statistics on driver’s licenses issued, the number of people applying under the new law, and the number of people who have taken the written and behind-the-wheel exams.
A month into the process, the DMV has issued 39,000 licenses.
“We’re in week four. I think it’s going to take a month or two to find out best practices,” said DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez.
Applicants report a range of experiences.
“It’s kind of a mixed bag. There’s people that have had complaints about their treatment, like rudeness and that sort of thing, and some people who have had wonderful experiences, that were treated like kings and queens,” said Wood, who leads license study sessions. Wait times depend on the location, and whether people make appointments or stand in line. In Pomona it’s difficult to secure an appointment, causing people to drive to neighboring DMV offices.
“I know someone who drove all the way to Hemet to take their driving test because they could get one earlier” than in Pomona, Wood said.
Navigating the labyrinth of DMV lines, appointments, applications, paperwork, fees and, finally, written and road tests hasn’t been the most challenging part of the process. Complications tend to arise with nonstandard cases — people who had driver’s licenses before and others who speak indigenous Latin American languages.
The majority of people in California without documentation are Latino, many of whom speak Spanish or native languages.
AB 60 — The Safe and Responsible Drivers Act — signed October 2013, allows people to apply this year for a driver’s license using a federal individual taxpayer identification number and other documents, instead of a Social Security number, which most undocumented immigrants do not have. They also must show proof of California residency through electric bills or similar documents.
Over the next three years, experts project roughly 1.5 million people will apply for the specially marked cards that specify the identification is for driving purposes only.
Some undocumented immigrants have been driving since they were legally allowed to drive in California, before 1994 when Republican Gov. Pete Wilson signed a law requiring immigrants to provide the DMV with a Social Security number to apply for a license.
DMV officials are sifting through old driving records and new applicants, and there’s still some confusion.
“They told us if you had a California driver’s license in the past, you wouldn’t have to take the behind-the-wheel. That was true for some people who have had a past California driver’s license, but it wasn’t for others,” Wood said.
Last week, advocates for indigenous language speakers in Mexico were chasing down answers from the DMV because Mixteco speakers were being told they could not use translators to take the written driving exam.
“They said for now, they don’t know how to do it,” said Juvenal Solano in Spanish, organizer of the advocacy group Mixteco Indigenous Community Organizing Project based in Ventura County, where there is a large indigenous population. DMV officials had told his group Mixteco speakers needed to compose 5 percent of all DMV applicants to have a test provided in Mixteco.
Conflicting answers were also provided by the DMV to reporters last week regarding translation services, with the department originally saying in an email, “An employee, interpreter, or translator cannot translate the actual driver license exam for an applicant.”
But the next day the department changed its answer, saying a translator could translate exam questions while a DMV employee documents the answer. They cannot assist during the driving exam.
Solano plans to teach basic Spanish to Mixteco speakers, many of whom already have a working knowledge of the language, to pass the behind-the-wheel test. Ultimately, he wants the audio exam translated to Mixteco because of the low literacy rate in that culture.
“We’re only asking for equality, justice … like other communities, Japanese, Punjabi … they have the audio test,” Solano said.
In Culver City, standing in a long line outside the DMV on Washington Boulevard, test-taker Carlos Martinez wasn’t so concerned with the test. He planned to pass on confidence and driving experience.
“I’ve been driving for three years,” Martinez, who works construction in Los Angeles, said in Spanish. “I think I have a 70 percent chance of passing.”
Beside him in line, Armando Jimenez spent all of January studying the DMV booklet and taking online practice tests. Both secured appointments in several weeks. Jimenez smiled at his neighbor’s confidence and said he had been driving for eight years but still needed to study.
“I drive for work as a day laborer,” Jimenez said in Spanish. “I think the problem with the Spanish test-takers is many people want take the test, but they’re not prepared.”
Some people who have been driving for years sign up for the test whether they’re prepared or not.
Others are flocking to study workshops at the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center. Organizers are asking people such as Yensy Aguilar — who passed the test — to set up informal classes at their churches, schools and community centers, to handle the onslaught.
Aguilar said the workshops explain when certain words or ideas don’t translate on the Spanish test. For example, the Spanish word colchon — or cushion — is used metaphorically on the exam to mean a safe space from the car next to you, leading Spanish speakers to think of air bags, Aguilar said.
Some applicants are intimidated by the touch screen testing stations.
Pass and fail rates will be released in February, along with a more in-depth report analyzing regions in the state, Gonzalez said. So far, rates were calculated only the first day, Jan. 2, showing 54 percent of English test-takers passed and 36 percent of Spanish test-takers, an improvement over rates before AB 60, which were 50 percent for English and 27 percent for Spanish.
For Aguilar, who missed three questions, the high score is not important, it’s the freedom that comes along with it. Immigrants feared driving without a license, having seen their cars impounded and being screened for deportation by federal immigration authorities.
“I think that many people who were afraid are no longer afraid,” Aguilar, who has been driving for eight years, said in Spanish. “We have the satisfaction of knowing we’re not doing anything illegal.”
Freedom to drive equates to freedom in life, Aguilar said.
“There aren’t limits. The only limits are those that you put on yourself,” Aguilar said. “There are people who don’t believe in why we are here … they have to believe, because God put us in this country and on this road.”