Jorge Jimenez (all names have been changed) got his driver’s license on January 2. When he showed his 15-year-old son, Oscar, that he had aced his DMV test, the look on his boy’s face made all the studying and stress worth the effort.
“He was one of the first people to congratulate me. It’s a very special experience when your son is proud of you,” says Jimenez, a 40-year-old farm worker with a bright grin and a strong handshake.
Of course, like hundreds of thousands of other undocumented Californians, Jorge and his wife Celia have in actuality been driving for decades. The Pescadero couple own a Toyota and a Ford Expedition, and they use them to drive to work, to ferry their three kids around town, and for family trips to Santa Cruz for groceries. You can’t get around the South Coast without a car. But a legal license only became an option on January 1, 2015, when a new law, AB60, came into effect. Jimenez was not only the first Puente driving student to pass his test, he was one of the first in the state.
Thousands have followed, crowding DMV locations and making test-taking appointments harder to get as a result. More than 1.4 million California residents are expected to apply in the next three years. “I tell people, don’t let this pass you by,” Jimenez says.
Puente started preparing participants all the way back in August with a free workshop on AB60. DMV workers and the local Sheriff came out to answer questions about what papers would be needed to apply. Puente passed out driving manuals and told people to start studying. A few months later, Ben Ranz, Puente’s Community Outreach Coordinator, began offering classes on the rules of the road based on the DMV driver’s manual to help people pass the written test. And when participants decide they are ready to take their tests, Puente helps them book their DMV appointments.
So far 126 local residents have participated in Puente’s AB60 program in some capacity, which is a substantial portion of the local undocumented population. Of the 126, 50 are women. To date, six people have passed the written exam and four of them have gone on to pass the behind the wheel test to get their license. Jimenez, of course, was the first.
“This is a huge step for people to start coming out of the shadows. It’s so hard for me to imagine worrying about a cop being behind me every time I get in the car. If I were in their shoes, I would be too stressed out to drive,” says Ranz.
This year, having a driver’s license will help ease stress in other parts of the lives of many in our community. Starting in May, undocumented parents of young U.S. citizens (or permanent residents) will be able to apply for a work permit under Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA), a federal program announced late last year. In many cases, the forms of ID Puente helped them obtain in order to apply for their driver’s license will be used for their DAPA applications as well.
Jimenez pulls his new license out of his battered black wallet. It is carefully protected in two layers of plastic. Ironically, Jimenez already had a California driver’s license, one he obtained nearly 20 years ago. But in 1993, California Governor Pete Wilson signed a law forcing license holders to prove their legal status, which resulted in a moratorium on licenses for people like Jimenez.
The move had profound effect on people’s livelihoods, says Jimenez.
“A lot of us that had licenses lost our jobs. We couldn’t do what we could do before. We had to find other work.” Jimenez used to drive a van to transport his fellow farm workers from barracks to field. Today he drives a tractor, picking onion leeks.
Now his wife and eldest son spend their evenings studying the driver’s manual together at the kitchen table. Oscar is still learning the rules of the road. Sometimes, when it’s safe, Jimenez will let Oscar get behind the wheel to practice, like a normal 15-year-old boy.
“He’s excited to drive. But I tell him, the most important thing isn’t obtaining your license. It’s keeping it,” he says.
That goes for Jimenez as well. He is hoping no lawmaker will ever force him to give up his license again.