Pencils moved quickly as roughly 20 undocumented immigrants raced to identify eight road signs drawn on a white board during a driver education class held at the Graton Day Labor Center earlier this week.
While most were familiar with the signs warning of merging lanes or forbidding U-turns, the 10 questions that class instructor Jo Anne Cohn read out loud stumped them.
“This is difficult for a lot of people,” Cohn said in Spanish to her students. She encouraged them to continue studying to avoid failing the test and having to go back to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“If you don’t pass, you’ll waste a lot of time,” Cohn, a center volunteer, said to her attentive class of mostly male day laborers. “I don’t want to go to the DMV more than once. It should be the same for you.”
Cohn has been working with immigrants like Raul Ramirez once a week to help them prepare for their driver’s license tests. A new state law that takes effect Jan. 2 allows immigrants like Ramirez to obtain a special driver’s license, regardless of their immigration status.
“A license will give me freedom. It’ll open roads,” Ramirez said after his class this week.
For Ramirez, it will be the first time he will be able to apply for a California driver’s license since he arrived from Mexico 15 years ago. The Santa Rosa resident said getting pulled over by police has been a daily fear that he can’t wait to overcome.
He’s already made an appointment with the local DMV office to take the written exam: at 9 a.m. Feb. 6.
California stripped undocumented immigrants of their driving privileges in 1993, when the state enacted a law that required residents to provide a Social Security number and proof of legal residency to obtain a driver’s license.
After Jan. 2, the state will begin processing applications for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants — all but reinstating the privilege that was taken away.
The class at the Graton Day Labor Center is part of massive statewide education and outreach efforts to help undocumented immigrants get their driver’s licenses. Some 1.4 million immigrants in the United States illegally are expected to apply for a California driver’s license after Jan. 2.
In the past year, more than 50,000 potential applicants have attended 175 community outreach events and forums across California, state officials said. The goal of the campaign is to inform people of the new law, let them know what the requirements are and to encourage immigrants to prepare for the driver’s tests.
“Make sure you make an appointment, and most important, study,” said Jaime Garza, spokesman for the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Garza said the state DMV has leveraged the reach of Spanish media, partnering with many Spanish-language television stations in areas with large Latino populations such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Diego and Fresno.
The DMV has hired an additional 900 employees across the state, opened four regional centers to process only first-time driver’s licenses, extended weekday hours at 14 field offices and will offer Saturday hours at 60 DMV offices, including sites in Santa Rosa and Napa.
As of Dec. 1, all first-time driver’s license applicants must make an appointment at a DMV office. The new regional processing centers, however, will accept walk-in applicants, though DMV officials encourage people to make appointments there as well.