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Sample questions on the California driver written test:

1) You are approaching a railroad crossing with no warning devices and are unable to see 400 feet down the tracks in one direction. The speed limit is:

A. 15 mph

B. 20 mph

C. 25 mph

2) To avoid last minute moves, you should be looking down the road to where your vehicle will be in about:

A. 5 to 10 seconds

B. 10 to 15 seconds

C. 15 to 20 seconds

3) California’s “Basic Speed Law” says:

A. You should never drive faster than posted speed limits.

B. You should never drive faster than is safe for current conditions.

C. The maximum speed limit in California is 70 mph on certain freeways.

Answers: 1 A; 2 B; 3 B

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.

At the Santa Rosa DMV, beginning Jan. 3, Saturday hours from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. will be available for driver’s license applicants, Garza said. He added that the DMV has extended to 90 days how far in advance people can make an appointment.

The special driver’s license will cost the same as a regular driver’s license, Garza said. Applicants will first be required to show proof of identity and state residency and then take a vision test.

Once that’s done, immigrants will be given a written test. As with regular driver’s licenses, those who pass the written test will then be given a driver’s permit and an appointment at a later date to take the driving test.

As with the regular driver’s license process, the fee will be $33 and immigrants will have three opportunities to take the written test.

While many of her students know how to drive, it’s the “DMV speak,” or government jargon, used on exams that can be a challenge, said Cohn, the volunteer driver education instructor at the Graton labor center.

“In any language it’s hard,” she said. “But this (class) is a great opportunity for them to practice.”

For Juan Rodriguez, another of Cohn’s driver ed students, it’ll be a major relief to no longer panic about getting pulled over when driving his children to school or going to the grocery store.

“You feel pressure and anxiety … every time you drive,” Rodriguez said. “But it’s hard, you have to drive every day.”

Santa Rosa immigration attorney Richard Coshnear said many undocumented immigrants in Sonoma County no longer will have to face that fear of getting ticketed or arrested for driving without a license. They also won’t have to stress over impounds, which have been a big problem in the area, he said.

“To have their car impounded and charged a thousand, or couple thousand, dollars to get it back is a big impact,” Coshnear said.

Two years after the state stripped undocumented immigrants of their right to drive, the state adopted a policy — modeled after a grant-funded pilot program in Santa Rosa — that requires police to impound a car for 30 days if the driver is unlicensed or driving on a suspended or revoked license.

Coshnear said that many of the immigrants who will benefit from the new law live on tight incomes. The cost to get their cars out of an impound lot would be a “big percentage” of their wages, he said.

Bosbely Ramos, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, said he’s had his car impounded twice because he didn’t have a license. The Santa Rosa man said it was cheaper to buy another car than pay the impound fee.

Ramos has been driving without a license since he arrived from Guatemala more than a decade ago. He said his need to work to send money back home to his wife, 14-year-old daughter and 13-year-old twin boys is what has forced him behind the wheel without a license.

“They depend on me,” he explained one morning after the driver’s class at the Graton labor center. “Driving is not a privilege. It’s a need.”

Jesus Guzman, a labor center organizer, said a license also could bring other employment opportunities, allowing workers to get to job sites without relying on limited public transportation or rides from friends or family. It’ll also improve public safety, he predicted.

“We’ll see less hit-and-run incidents,” he said. “This is in everybody’s interest to have a licensed and insured driver.”

Garza of the DMV agreed. He said support from law enforcement groups was one of the big reasons the new law, AB 60, passed in late 2013.

Sonoma State University professor Francisco Vazquez said passage of AB 60 is owed largely to a dramatic shift in politics in California, brought about by California’s ever-growing Latino population and nearly a decade of aggressive immigration activism on the part of undocumented immigrants and their supporters.

He said 20 years ago, many Latinos in California became “politicized” by passage of Proposition 187, a voter initiative that prohibited undocumented immigrants from using social services and required state and local law enforcement officials and government workers to screen and report those suspected of being in the country illegally.

Much of the law was struck down in court, but similar provisions were enacted into federal immigration law in 1996. These laws gave rise to a growing immigrant civil rights movement that culminated with massive marches and rallies in 2006 and after, he said.

Since then, he said, anti-immigrant leanings in California have proven detrimental for candidates seeking elective office, particularly in statewide races. Even though Latino voter turnout is not reaching its full potential, Vazquez said Latinos have the numbers to sway elections — 5 or 10 percent can sway a close election.

“You don’t need a lot of Latinos voting to make major changes,” Vazquez said.

Ramirez said he wants to get to travel around and outside the state once he receives a license.

Garza, the DMV spokesman, said whether other states accept or honor the special immigrant driver’s license is up to that state’s law enforcement agencies. The licenses also cannot be used to board planes or enter federal buildings.

When asked if the state was working on agreements with other states to accept the new licenses, Garza said the California “DMV is focused on implementing AB 60.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish. You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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