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For undocumented immigrants, driver's licenses secure a sense of freedom

"CA DMV 00734" by Flickr user Omar Bárcena. Used under CC BY-NC 2.0 / Cropped and resized
Image source http://bit.ly/1SvgN6R


It’s been just over a year since undocumented immigrants in California have been able to get driver’s licenses through the AB 60 law.


Thefirst week the law took effect, there were extra long lines at DMV centers around the state, and close to 50,000 undocumented immigrants  applied. Now, more than a year later, the DMV says it’s issued more than 600,000 AB 60 driver’s licenses. Pescadero farm worker Lupé Ramirez has one of them. He and his wife got theirs together a few months after the law passed.

A very important piece of paper

I meet Lupé Ramirez at the entrance of the K&S Ranch in Pescadero. It’s right off of Highway 1, about 25 miles south of Half Moon Bay. Ramirez works on the ranch doing maintenance and helping out with the land.


It’s lunchtime, and Ramirez wants to drive to downtown Pescadero for a burrito. The one taqueria in town has really good ones, he says. But before we pull out of the driveway, Ramirez wants to show me a very important piece of paper. He takes out his wallet, and pulls out his driver’s license.

It looks the same as any other driver’s license, except for small print in the right hand corner. Most people can’t tell the difference.

‘You can’t buy a pair of socks in Pescadero’

“Its very small, but what it actually says is ‘not for for Federal use,’ says Ben Ranz, who is here, too, sitting in the backseat. He’s helping translate. Ranz does outreach for Puente de La Costa Sur, a community organization serving the San Mateo Coast. It’s a community that’s really hard to get around, especially if you don’t have a car.

“It’s a really remote area and access is limited to just about everything. I mean you can’t buy a pair of socks in Pescadero,” Ranz says. Shopping, laundry, banks, and schools are at least half an hour away or more. Using the one bus that comes through Pescadero would take hours.

“Not having a car ... you might as well not have legs or feet because you can't go anywhere,” Ramirez says.

Before AB 60 passed, people like Ramirez drove anyway, and risked getting pulled over. When Ramirez moved here from Oaxaca 13 years ago, he was pulled over by the police on his way to do laundry. He couldn’t understand English. He didn’t know what he did wrong.

“They gave me a ticket, they took my car and I had to walk home,” he says.

So when he heard he could apply for a license, he started studying. When they were ready, Ramirez and his wife went to the DMV in Santa Cruz.

Passing on the first try

Ramirez and his wife passed their tests on the first try. Afterwards, they came into a class at Puente to tell others about the process.

“After you study and you know the rules, the rest of it is easy,” Ramirez says. Almost everyone he knows has tried to get their licenses. And Ranz says the ones who haven’t just didn’t want to put the time in, or are afraid of taking the test.

“So to see somebody in your own community — who is basically in your shoes — succeed at doing it, I think really gave a lot of people a lot of confidence that they could continue,” Ranz says.

Ranz says so far, about 100 people in Pescadero and the surrounding community got their licenses through the new law. But they aren’t stopping outreach because new people are always arriving. And, he says a license isn’t a good idea for everyone. For example, someone who has a DUI, or past problems with immigration. But for most people, he says it’s one of the first things he brings up.

“Do you have health insurance, do you have voicemail set up so somebody could leave you a message, so the doctor could leave you a message, and yeah, do you have your driver's license? Getting those things and a few others nailed down really just makes your life a lot easier,” Ranz says.

A new sense of mobility

Now that he has his license, Ramirez isn’t afraid to drive anymore. His daughter can go to a better school in Santa Cruz. One that’s 40 minutes from where they live.

“Right now my daughter wouldn’t be going to that school in Santa Cruz. I wouldn’t risk driving to Santa Cruz every day if I didn’t have a license,” he says.

Now, Ramirezsays he drives almost two and a half hours every day. He says he feels safer on the road, whether it’s going to do laundry, pick his daughter up from school, or go out for a burrito.