For two months last fall, Juana Gutierrez drove her husband from their ranch shack in Sebastopol to his daily radiation appointments in Santa Rosa.
Each time she got behind the wheel of her late-model Toyota Camry, Gutierrez -#8212; an undocumented immigrant who cannot obtain a driver's license -#8212; risked getting pulled over and having her car impounded for 30 days.
Her husband, Hermenejildo Gonzalez, was dying of cancer at the age of 43. To her usual daily prayers, Gutierrez added another supplication.
"Every day I drove him and that whole time I prayed to the virgin that the police not stop me," said Gutierrez, 40, speaking in Spanish.
Gonzalez died three months ago and Gutierrez is still praying that she doesn't get pulled over.
Such invocations will soon be answered with the implementation of a new state law passed last fall that allows undocumented immigrants, possibly as many as 1.4 million, the opportunity to obtain driver's licenses. The state Department of Motor Vehicles has until Jan. 1, 2015 to establish testing, licensing and insurance requirements for undocumented drivers.
Until then, the impound rule still stands and undocumented immigrants must continue to run the gauntlet of regular police patrols and driver's license checkpoints.
In Sebastopol, however, local law enforcement, city officials and immigration advocates are working together to create a stopgap solution that will offer some relief from the impound rule.
Earlier this week, the Sebastopol City Council adopted a resolution that seeks to minimize the number of vehicles that are impounded. Drivers who are caught driving without a license will receive a ticket but will not have their cars towed if it a first offense, as of the date the resolution was enacted.
California stripped undocumented immigrants of their driving privileges in 1993 when it enacted a law that requires residents to provide a Social Security number and proof of legal residency to obtain a driver's license.
Two years later, the state adopted a policy -#8212; modeled after a grant-funded pilot program in Santa Rosa -#8212; that requires police to impound a car for 30 days if the driver is unlicensed or driving on a suspended or revoked license.
For Gutierrez, who has been stopped twice, Sebastopol's resolution effectively gives her one more chance to avoid having her car impounded. The death of her husband had forced her to become the main breadwinner for her two children and her parents.
Gutierrez started cleaning houses and has become active with the domestic workers' rights group at the Graton Day Labor Center. Now, she said, she's driving more than ever.
Three years ago, Gutierrez was forced to forfeit her vehicle because she could not afford to pay the $2,000 impound cost to retrieve it after 30 days. Though she lost the car, she still had to pay about $600 for storage and a $14 recycling fee, she said.
"It will help us a lot," she said. "That way we don't have to fear that they're going to take our cars. We won't have to fear that they're going to deport us for just going to court."
The resolution essentially gives people like Gutierrez a clean slate.
"We may be little Sebastopol, but we have the ability to help those in need in our community," said Mayor Robert Jacob. "This resolution in Sebastopol really does reduce hardships and my hope and goal is that other cities and counties across the state will see this resolution and work to enact similar policies."