For some, getting a driver's license is a tricky — and time-consuming — task
AB 60 — a year-old law allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses — hasn’t worked the same for everyone. For some people, like Ghanaian national Eko Croffie, a small complication can mean a long journey ahead.
A visit to the DMV
Croffie came to the U.S. in 2006, on a visitor visa. After it expired, he stayed in the country and became undocumented. For a while, he was paid under-the-table as a security guard in Oakland, working the night shift and taking three busses to get to and from work. When his wife and daughter joined him in 2013, he says, things got harder.
"They were all depending on me, and I wanted to get [a license] so I could go around and do things faster," he says. It would change everything: "How I could go to work; and if I’m schooling, I could go to school; and get home early and take care of family; and bring my child to school, and all those things."
So, when Eko heard about AB60, he jumped at the opportunity. He read up on the application process, gathered his documents, and headed to the DMV with his wife and daughter. But he says the lady at the counter looked at his papers and told him he didn't qualify for a license. That was in February 2015, a month after the state started accepting applications.
The woman told Eko he failed to qualify because he didn't have a passport. He had brought a photocopy, but not the actual document, which he says he lost. And he couldn’t get to his consulate to re-apply for one because he couldn't travel without an ID, because of his undocumented status.
"How could I get a passport when my consulate is not in California, but in New York?" he asks. "How can I get there to get a passport when I don't have any ID with me to travel with?"
Eko found himself stuck. So he went back to DMV’s Guide to Document Options and found out the AB 60 program does accept other documents to prove identity, in place of a passport: like a foreign driver’s license or a marriage certificate. They department will accept these papers provided someone also brings proof of California residency. Eko says he went to DMV with all that in hand.
"Birth certificate, which I had; marriage certificate, which I had; bank statement, which I had," he lists.
Then, he says, they said they still wanted a photo ID. Eko had his license from Ghana, but it wasn’t good enough. "They still said 'no,'" he says. "They still wanted my passport."
At this point, it had been two months since Eko first went to DMV. Frustrated, he sought help and turned to the African Advocacy Network, or AAN, in San Francisco. The group helps local immigrants navigate AB 60 paperwork, and in the past, AAN had teamed up with Pacific Islander groups who say they've had experiences in their own communities similar to Eko's. So they set up a meeting with the DMV in Sacramento, and the director of AAN, Adoubou Traore, asked Eko to come testify.
Eko says the DMV reps heard his story and told him they understood his frustration. They also took his paperwork for processing. After the meeting, Eko called the Ghanaian consulate to try and apply for a replacement passport — which he eventually go and took with him when he went back to DMV. Now, he was sure his paperwork was complete.
"That's where they gave me chance to write the exams," Eko says. "And I passed."
After passing, he thought he'd receive his permit — but still, he didn't. Instead, Eko was told his application had already gone into another process called secondary review, which started when he first submitted his photocopied ID. It didn’t matter that he now had the original.
The DMV's backlog
If by now you’re confused and frustrated by this sequence of events, according to AAN, so are many immigrants who have lived it.
California DMV representative Artemio Armenta says, "We certainly apologize to anyone who experienced that delay, and we completely understand the frustration that people felt in having their application processed through the secondary review process."
As to why the AB 60 process was taking so long for some people, Armenta says, "There certainly was a delay in processing, just because we received such high volume, and there was high interest in the program."
High interest, Armenta says, from a variety of people with varying paperwork. Which has made it more challenging for the department.
"Every single applicant had a unique experience — a unique set of documents they were bringing. Different countries, different parts of the world."
Armenta says the department has since caught up on the backlog, and now DMV is working on applications in real time.That’s good news for folks applying now.
But the folks who applied last year, like Eko Croffie, were less lucky. By February 2016, it had been a year since Eko applied for a license through AB 60, and he still didn’t have one. He was still taking his kids to school on the AC Transit bus. He was losing hope. But then: "One day I got home, my wife came and said, 'I've got mail for you.'"
"So I opened it and I saw my Driver's License. And I said, 'Fi-na-lly. Thank you, Jesus.'"