California's Undocumented Immigrants Get Ready for the DMV

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A resident of East San Jose named Monica attends a driver training test prep session at the Mexican Consulate in San Jose, Dec. 15, 2014. Monica hopes to get her driver's license once undocumented immigrants living in California are allowed to apply starting on Jan. 2.  (Vinnee Tong/KQED)

On Friday, undocumented immigrants in California can reclaim a long-lost privilege: the right to stand in line at the DMV.

It’s the first day that immigrants living in California illegally can apply for a license in more than 20 years. That right was recently secured in 2013, when state lawmakers passed AB60.

Some are so excited at the prospect that they’ve been preparing for the DMV exams months in advance.

Since July, volunteer teacher Felipe Portales has taught nearly 1,000 students at test prep sessions at San Jose schools and churches and at the Mexican Consulate. Students have traveled from as far away as Oakland, Salinas, Watsonville and King City.

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On a recent weeknight, his audience included about 35 undocumented immigrants. They met in borrowed space at the consulate. Portales used to work for the DMV and, along with his ex-wife, Gina Gates, also used to run a drivers education business.

They’ve been offering classes at the consulate for free.
He says two students in the front row are here for the sixth or seventh time.

“We ask them to come as many times as they want,” Portales says. “Because these two women say that it’s easier to get it from my lecture than to read and try to understand it and try to remember it.”

Many who attend come straight from work. Tired, they show up anyway, eager to pass their tests at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Immigrants study driving rules in preparation for their tests at the DMV. California will let undocumented immigrants apply for driver licenses as of Jan. 2, 2015. (Vinnee Tong/KQED)
Immigrants study driving rules in preparation for their tests at the DMV. California will let undocumented immigrants apply for driver's licenses as of Jan. 2, 2015. (Vinnee Tong/KQED)

Over the next three years, the DMV expects 1.4 million undocumented immigrants to apply for licenses. Portales’ students are among the first who will try.

In two sessions that last 2½ hours  each, Portales covers speed limits, 3-point turns, how to hold the steering wheel and the danger of passing on a two-lane road.

During a break in the class, one of the students explains why she wants to get her license.

“I’m scared because I don’t have something legal here for identification,” says Monica, who asked to go by her first name only because she’s been driving without a license.

Monica moved to East San Jose from Acapulco, Mexico, to support her two daughters back at home. And for the past 12 years, she says her work as a housekeeper means she drives a lot, every day.

The new license that Monica hopes to get isn’t going to look like an ordinary license. Republicans pushed to make sure it was clearly different. Like Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Carlsbad, who told me he fought an earlier version.

“It basically could have been the same license that a citizen would have had,” Chavez said about the earlier design. “I brought up the point that licenses need to look different for a noncitizen.”

Under the law Gov. Jerry Brown signed, the new licenses will be distinctly different. The front will say: Federal Limits Apply. And the back will say: This card is not acceptable for official federal purposes.

Monica says that doesn’t bother her.

Portales says a lot of undocumented immigrants haven’t decided whether to risk putting themselves on record.

“Many of them are concerned they’re going to get deported as soon as they register themselves,” he says. “They think they’re going to get deported and they’re afraid.”

But Portales says many plan to step forward regardless.

There are two ways undocumented immigrants can apply for their licenses: Get an appointment at any DMV office or show up at one of four giant new DMVs that have opened temporarily just for this. Three are in Southern California: in Granada Hills, Lompoc and Stanton. The fourth is in San Jose. All this new real estate and personnel are projected to cost $141 million over three years.

Applicants need to show that they do in fact live in the state and to provide some form of identification.

Monica has her appointment set for next week, and she says it will be a big relief when she can finally get a license.

“You have your identification, you don’t have so much problem,” she says. “You feeling better if the police stop. OK, I have everything correct.”