Socorro Vázquez remembers feeling her heart sink the first time a police officer pulled her over while she was driving on Evergreen near the cemetery. But she wasn’t worried because she was speeding.
“The first thing he said to me was, ‘Give me your papers,’ she said. She feared having her car impounded or being deported and separated from the daughter she raises as a single mom in the Ramona Gardens housing community.
Vázquez has taken that risk for nearly 17 years — every time she gets in the car and drives without a license. A year ago, she was stopped again, this time in Glendale as she was heading home from a long day at work.
“I had a beat up old car with a broken headlight,” she said. “As I made a turn, the cop saw me. He said to me, ‘You don’t have a drivers license, do you?’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t have it.’ But I started to tremble because I had been stopped once before.”
While each traffic stop cost Vázquez $300 because she was driving without a license, she was lucky both times that she did not get her car impounded, which can cost thousands of dollars. For many people, impoundment results in the loss of the vehicle because they can’t afford the fees to retrieve it.
Vázquez is one of nearly 1.4 million undocumented drivers in California who will benefit from Assembly Bill 60, signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in 2013. Also known as the Safe and Responsible Drivers Act, the law goes into effect Jan. 2 and allows undocumented residents to obtain drivers licenses in California, as long as they obtain insurance under their own names.
According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, these licenses cannot be used to establish eligibility for employment, to register to vote, to obtain public benefits or apply for a passport.
Undocumented drivers will be required to pass written and driving tests, pay a $33 fee, and show proof of identity and residency in California.
Some documents issued by foreign governments, such as the Mexican “matrícula consular,” can be used to prove identity. A list of acceptable forms of identification is available on the DMV website, www.ca.dmv.gov.
To prepare for the thousands of applicants expected in the first weeks of the year, the DMV has recently opened new offices, hired hundreds of new workers and extended hours and appointment periods at some locations.
Olga Pérez, the newly elected vice president of the Ramona Gardens Residents Advisory Council (RAC) and a volunteer with LA Voice,an interfaith community organization that pushed for the passage of AB 60, believes many Ramona Gardens residents will benefit from the law.
Pérez says that LA Voice is now helping those that qualify gather the required documents and prepare for the test.
“Any documents they need help to go get or sign up for anything — we’re going to try to help them as much as we can,” says Pérez. She believes that as many as 80 percent of drivers in the Ramona Gardens housing complex are unlicensed.
Last fall, LA Voice organized a community forum at Dolores Mission Church, where representatives from the DMV, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Mexican Consulate, among other groups, addressed some of the questions and fears of undocumented people.
Each participant was given an information kit that included a study booklet in Spanish. Vásquez, 56, now carries it with her to brush up whenever she has a chance. At the forum, Vázquez says, police and other authorities assured participants that they could apply for licenses without fear of deportation, as they are protected under the recently enacted California Trust Act.
For Vazquez, who works as a nanny, getting a driver’s license is not a luxury, but a necessity in order to work and provide for her family.
“My need is so great,” she says with great emotion and determination. “As mother and father I say no, because my daughter is not going to starve to death, and I’m not going to live on the streets with her. I have to provide her with a roof over her head and food, those are the two most important things.”