By Stephanie Canales | Contributions by Stacy Suh and Daisy Vieyra
Working for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-NC) to inform the immigrant community about California’s new driver’s license law has been a transformational experience. I have learned so much about the long road to achieve greater immigrant integration and increase public safety in California through AB 60: The Safe and Responsible Driver Act.
For many of us, having a driver’s license might seem an easy process or a natural event. You might think back and remember that obtaining one was the single most exciting thing to happen to you in your teens. It represented the opportunity to go out with friends, take a girlfriend out, move out from your parents’ house or maybe even run some speed races.
However, for an estimated
1.4 million Californians, it was not until Jan. 2 of this year that they would be able to apply for a license and go about their daily routine without fear. Preceded by a 20-year struggle, in the end the law will make an incredible impact in the day-to-day lives of many Californians.
In speaking with community member and activist Leonel F. Bustamante, I learned that the fight for driver’s licenses started in 1994, when California began requiring that you prove that you are lawfully in the country in order to get a driver’s license. Since then, people have faced countless challenges for driving without a license. Many of our friends, family members and neighbors lived in constant fear of getting costly tickets, police discrimination, job loss and sometimes losing up to two weeks’ pay to get their car out of the impound lot.
So how did California end up allowing everyone to apply for a driver’s license? Bustamante told me that in 1977 a few people had the idea to organize and try to pass a law through the California legislature in order to allow immigrants to get licenses again. Community members and leaders like California State Senator Gil Cedillo (D–Los Angeles) and Assembly Member Luis Alejo (D–Watsonville) took leadership in this initiative, but the fight was not quick, short or easy. In fact, there was a lot of disagreement over whether to have licenses marked to differentiate them from the rest.
Some people had concerns about discrimination with a marked license. However, Bustamante said that what people wanted was a document so their cars would not be impounded. In the end, AB 60 has a marking on the front and the back that indicates there are federal limits to the license. What this means is that AB 60 license holders cannot use the license to access restricted areas in federal facilities, with Transportation Security Administration (TSA) or other federal agents. The license also does not grant any other benefit like the ability to vote.
However, despite this, with AB 60, mothers will not be left on the side of the road with their small children and families will no longer have to decide between feeding their kids and paying expensive fines and fees for driving without a license. Now that AB 60 passed, I have been giving workshops in the Central Valley to empower community members to prepare and apply for driver’s licenses. The process is similar to that of any other driver’s license applicant: AB 60 applicants need to prove their identity, prove they live in California and show that they know the rules of the road. During these workshops, I see classrooms of enthusiastic participants with an evident desire to learn. Their motivation is inspirational and laudable.
At one of my workshops at Yokomi Elementary School in Fresno, I met Lilia Becerril, a community member and activist. Becerril learned the process and documents required to obtain an AB 60 driver’s license. She not only learned but also played a leadership role in setting up workshops in other schools throughout Fresno. Her participation, for example, was crucial to the success of workshops like the one at Vang Pao Elementary School, where we were able to inform more than 100 parents at once.
Becerril has successfully proved she knew the rules of the road and received her AB 60 license. She says she feels safe driving on the streets and is now able to take her father to his regular doctor’s appointments and go to the store at any time. She said that for 21 years she drove carefully even though she did not have a license and now that she has one, she plans to continue doing the same.
However, Becerril is not alone. According to DMV statistics released after the first weekend of AB 60 implementation, 45% of AB 60 applicants passed their written test. This might seem low, but it is important to keep in mind that 50% of the general population passes the written test. That means that although there is room for improvement, AB 60 applicants are doing their homework and studying for their driving tests.
Personally, I never appreciated the ability to move freely on the streets as much as I do now. I feel honored to be part of this large community effort, the ACLU and working in collaboration with several organizers from the Fresno area who made this possible and have encouraged people to apply for an AB 60 driver’s license.
Stephanie Canales is a community organizer for the ACLU. She is originally from El Salvador, Central America. She also advocates for survivors of sexual assault at the Rape Counseling Services – Fresno. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 559-326-4677.