Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Calif. to offer low-cost insurance to new immigrant drivers

Students at Orange County's Mexican consulate study for their driver's license tests. State officials hope that new drivers will buy insurance.
Students at Orange County's Mexican consulate study for their driver's license tests. State officials hope that new drivers will buy insurance.
Marcus Teply/KQED

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State officials hope a new law that offers California driver's licenses to immigrants in the country illegally will also spur them to buy insurance.

To encourage the practice, the California Department of Insurance is aggressively marketing its Low Cost Auto Insurance program to the large pool of immigrants projected to seek licenses under the AB 60 law taking effect Jan. 1.

"It would be a tragedy if after all this effort, the 1.4 million people who are getting driver’s licenses for the first time don’t have auto insurance," said Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones. 

Jones and others recognized that the cost of getting licensed — $33  — is a lot cheaper than buying insurance for hundreds of dollars a year. So, Jones, working with Senator Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, got the state Legislature to open up the low-cost insurance program to the new category of immigrant drivers. 

"The price will be less than $450 a year, which is less than $38 a month," Jones said.  He said that's about a third of what it costs to get private auto insurance in many markets across California.

Jones said more than 90 percent of AB 60 applicants are expected to be Spanish speakers. So the state’s been pushing its low-cost insurance through Spanish-language media and ads like this:

Low Cost Auto Insurance ad

Los Angeles-based insurance broker Susan Rocha said the state program likely offers the lowest prices for low-income immigrant drivers, especially since they have no official driving record.

"Any place else it’s going to be much more, because they are considered a new driver," Rocha said.

But Rocha cautioned that the state’s low-cost program is very basic, and those who can afford more might want to join a private plan with beefier coverage. If they can jump on a relative's plan, they may be able to enjoy loyalty discounts, Rocha said.

For years, California law has allowed immigrants in the country illegally to buy insurance even without a license. But day laborer Alfredo Vidal said he just didn’t see the point.

"Why?" said Vidal, who borrows his friend's pick-up truck for construction gigs around L.A. "I don’t have a driver’s license."

But going without insurance can lead to hundreds of dollars in fines, not to mention losing one’s driver’s license, and car registration. In a crash, a driver might not be able to afford thousands of dollars in repairs. Some drivers might be apt to leave the scene. And this could raise insurance costs for everybody.

Vidal was willing to accept the risks.

"I have to take people with materials to the houses," Vidal said. "I have to be driving all the time."

Immigrant advocates have largely avoided handing out insurance advice. Ana Garcia gives workshops on the new law for the Central American Resource Center, and said her priority is helping immigrants get their license.

"We only went over insurance when they take the driving test," Garcia said. "I let them know that whatever car they need to use for the driving test needs to be insured."

For his driver’s test, Vidal said he’ll borrow his friend’s car, which is already insured.  If he passes and gets his license, Vidal says he’ll take all the proper next steps.  

"We’re going to get insurance - everybody," Vidal said. "We know it’s the law."