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California's undocumented immigrants prepare for drivers test

Students at Orange County's Mexican consulate study the California Driver Handbook. With AB-60, California joins 10 other states in allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses.
Students at Orange County's Mexican consulate study the California Driver Handbook. With AB-60, California joins 10 other states in allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses.
Marcus Teply/KQED

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Under a new state law, the DMV will start issuing licenses to undocumented immigrants in January. When it does, more than a million people could be eligible to take the test. Sponsors of AB-60 argue it's a win-win — it keeps immigrants out of trouble with the law, and makes the roads safer since drivers will know what they're doing. But, it only works if they can pass the test, and that may be easier said than done.

For the California Report, Valerie Hamilton looks at a statewide effort to get them ready.

In the first week that undocumented immigrants started taking Nevada's driver's exam, 90 percent failed. California is eager to avoid the same fate. Enter driver's ed.

It starts at the Mexican Consulate in Orange County, where Consul Loreta Ruiz has organized a series of free five-hour driver's ed classes for people getting ready to take the test.

“We want them to study the rules," she says. "We want them to know the rules, so when they go to present that test, they'll be able to pass it."

And so, on a recent Saturday, students settled in with coffee and doughnuts and passed around a stack of printouts of road signs and traffic rules. Driver’s ed teacher Juan Carlos Lopez started off by asking them how many already drive. You might think the number would be small — this was driver’s ed, after all. But a roomful of hands went up.

“Even though I don't have a driver's license, I still have to go to school. I have to go to work,” says Mabel Barrera, 27. She has lived in the U.S. since she was 15, and has been driving since she was 17. Still, this was her first-ever driving class. Until now, she had learned the rules of the road from her mother.

“My mom learned in Mexico,” Barrera said. “She had her driver's license. She just told me some rules, but just the basics, because she didn't know exactly how many feet, or for how many seconds, you're supposed to stop.”

Mabel is just one of an estimated 2 million unlicensed drivers in California, many of them undocumented immigrants who now could get licensed next year. But they'll need to learn the rules of the road for real this time. And so the DMV is stocking community centers with the California driver's manual in 10 languages, and promoting a driver's test smartphone app in English and Spanish.

Other Mexican consulates are planning more driver's ed and test prep sessions for the summer. Immigration advocacy groups are holding information sessions. One community college is offering “English for the Driver's Test.” And driving schools are looking forward to an uptick in registration.

Part of the challenge is that California’s exam is tough, even for people who were born here. According to the last available statistics, about half of all people who take it for the first time fail, as do more than 70 percent of people who take it in a language other than English.

And that's just the written test. As for the practical test, says California DMV spokesman Armando Botello, “Some people fail before they get out of the parking lot.”

Even the bill's sponsor, California state Assemblyman Luis Alejo, says the test is a challenge. “It was very difficult, even for me as a lawyer and a college graduate, to pass that exam.”

But there's one way through: study. In Nevada, when word got out that you needed to prepare for the test, the fail rate dropped. And so California is working to make sure undocumented immigrants buckle down before they buckle up.

At the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles, education coordinator Claudia Matus goes through DMV practice tests with a yellow highlighter. The consulate has been handing out the practice tests to people waiting for IDs. Matus says getting people to study the driver's manual can be a hard sell.

“People normally say, ‘Oh I've been driving for so many years, I know everything that is to know regarding driving,’ ” she says. “But they really don't know what the laws and regulations are.”

The real test has 36 questions, and a passing grade is 32. This practice test has 10 questions, so you can only get one wrong. She goes through Gustavo Rangel's test and finds two mistakes. Fail. Rangel groans.

Rangel is at the consulate six months early, applying for a consular ID to use as identification for his license application in January. He's lived in California for six years without papers, and he drives without a license every day. He says he's always looking over his shoulder.

“All the time,” he says. “When I see a cop behind me, I mean I feel scared.” He says he's been stopped and ticketed twice. When January rolls around, he plans to be first in line for a license.

“I think it's going to change a lot. It’s going to change my life, totally,” he says.

But first, he’s got to hit the books. Matus puts his name on the mailing list for driver's ed classes, and tells him to download the DMV app for his smartphone. He promises he will.

And then he leaves the consulate and gets back on the road.