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New law gives undocumented Californians a chance to apply for driver’s licenses


Rosa Santos is leaning over a pile of forms and documents in the corner of the San Jose’s new DMV. I meet her along with her friend. They’re both applying for their licenses for the first time through AB 60.

Santos came prepared today. She studied for hours, pouring over YouTube tutorials and sample driver's tests. As she waits in line, she riffles through the documents she needs -  a Mexican ID, a piece of mail to confirm her address, and $33 for the processing fee.

I ask her if she’s nervous.

“I’m nervous but I’m excited too,” she says.

Santos has lived in San Jose since 1998. She works long hours as a quality control inspector in a factory nearby, and drives to and from work every morning. She says not having a driver’s license makes her daily routine anything but routine.

“Oh my god. So many difficult things happen when you don't have a driver's license,” Santos says.

She says she’s been stopped by the police: once for a broken tail light, once for speeding, another time she didn’t know why. Each time she says she got a ticket for not having a license. She can’t buy car insurance either.

“And they repo your car, it's like 1,000 dollars to pay for getting back your car,” Santos says. She says that’s happened to her twice already.

She says if she passes, the license will give her a new sense of mobility.

“I just drive to my house, to work, and now I have a chance to go somewhere else without thinking the police are going to stop me and give a ticket,” she says.

Santos is one of thousands of undocumented Californians who have applied to get licenses in the two weeks since AB 60 took effect. In the first three days there were over 40,000 undocumented applicants, says DMV spokesperson Jessica Gonzales.

“We're expecting over the next three years that 1.4 million will apply,” Gonzalez adds.

To handle the extra business, the DMV has hired 900 new employees. Gonzalez says most AB 60 applicants have to pass a written test, and then a behind-the-wheel exam.

“On the first day, we had 54 percent in English pass the test, and in Spanish we had 36 percent pass the test. But to kind of give you an idea before AB 60 applicants were able to take the test, our pass rate in English was 50.8 percent and pass rate in Spanish was 28 percent, so actually since AB 60 applicants started taking the test, the pass rate has actually increased,” she says.

Those numbers bode well for Jorge Martinez who is also waiting in the lobby. He’s not taking any chances. He’s dressed in a suit and leather shoes, nervously pouring over every last detail in his study guide, waiting for his number to be called.

Martinez works nights seven days a week, cleaning parking lots and roads. In the week leading up to the test he spent his days studying.

“It’s very important for me to pass the test because my family depends on me,” he says.

Martinez says he needs to drive his kids to school in the morning. Then he and his wife continue on to their full time jobs. Like Rosa Santos, Martinez tells me he has been pulled over many times by the police. He says he feels they are watching out for his car.

“Sometimes the police watch me and I feel nervous,” he says.

Martinez says he will feel safer with a legal license. He says he doesn’t want to hide from the law anymore. Governor Jerry Brown says if Martinez and other undocumented Californian drives are licensed, roads everywhere in the state will be safer.

The whole point of AB 60 is to make the roads safer by having drivers that know the rules of the road, have been licensed, have been tested,” says Jessica Gonzalez.

Some critics of AB 60 feel it rewards people who are already breaking the law. Some immigrants' rights activists have expressed concern about applicants having to hand over so much personal information.

Rosa Santos gives worried glances to her friend when DMV employees take a while to process her documents, but after another half hour waiting in line to take the written test and get her photo taken, Santos walks out of the testing area.

“I passed! I passed the test,” she says, laughing.

She says she feels like a huge weight has been lifted off her shoulders.

“It’s phenomenal. I’m happy, I’m really happy. It's like I feel free.”

Santos still has to make an appointment to do her behind the wheel test before she gets an actual license, but she’s legally allowed to drive now, and she’s already planning her first big road trip - to visit family and friends she hasn’t seen in years.

“Now I'm going to get to Nevada, I'm going to drive to different states,” Santos says.

And Jorge Martinez? He passed too, and scheduled a behind the wheel for test this week.

“I’m very happy, two errors only! I can go to the house and call my wife. My wife I think is happy for this paper,” he says.

His kids will be happy, too. As we walk out towards his car, tells me he’s never been able to take them places they want to go, like on a trip or to an amusement park.

“Now my babies, I can go!”

He holds up his paper - a paper that means a lot more than just a license.