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

AB 60: For one newly-legal driver, license means no more evading police

Newly licensed driver Ramona recalls how she'd react in the past when she saw a police car.
Newly licensed driver Ramona recalls how she'd react in the past when she saw a police car. "My legs were shaking," she said. She is one of more than 25,000 people in California who have received driver's licenses so far under AB 60, a new state law that allows immigrants without legal immigration status to legally drive.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
Newly licensed driver Ramona recalls how she'd react in the past when she saw a police car.
The new AB 60 driver's licenses are marked with the words "Federal Limits Apply."
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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It’s been three weeks since immigrants without legal permission began applying for special California driver’s licenses under the new law known as AB 60. More than 25,000 people have already received them, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

One of them is Ramona, a 36-year-old mother of four who works in a Whittier restaurant. Because she still doesn't have legal immigration status, she asked that her last name not be used.

Until Tuesday, Ramona was driving without a license - as she'd done for years.

She'd stick to side streets as she drove to and from work, and shuttled her kids around. Her goal was always to avoid the police. The sight of a squad car would send her into a panic.

“My legs were shaking," she said. "Oh no, I was so scared.”

If a cop came too close, she'd get too nervous to drive.

“I would go to like the next parking lot and go in, and stop," Ramona said. "When I saw the police go, I’d get out of the parking lot and continue driving.”

She and others who were driving illegally would rely on an informal alert network, texting and calling one another to avoid authorities.

"Co-workers, I would tell them hey, there is a checkpoint on that street, don't go there," she said.

Ramona says she was never pulled over in the three years that she drove illegally on a regular basis. But she knows people who were stopped - and some who were deported afterward.

In the days since she's had her license, her routine hasn't changed much. When she clocks out from her cashier shift, she gets into her SUV and starts making the rounds to pick up her daughters: One at the babysitter, one at her middle school, and so on.

Only now she's less afraid to turn onto major streets, and she's not constantly looking over her shoulder. But there's more to it than not having to look out for police anymore.

"It’s a big deal for us," Ramona said. "You feel like part of this community, that they accept you." 

She's hoping she'll soon be able to get temporary legal status and a work permit under the new immigration plan announced by the Obama administration. She arrived as a minor and is the parent of U.S. citizen children - two things that could qualify her.

Ramona says she came to the U.S. at age 11, then returned to Mexico for a while to attend college, and earned a business degree there. If she can work legally, she'd like to start looking for a better-paying job where she can apply her skills.

Now that she has a license, she says, she doesn't mind having to commute.