SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) – There's a lot riding on a California law to grant driver's licenses to immigrants in the country illegally and supporters are already preparing prospective drivers to pass the test required to get one.
A Mexican consulate is hosting monthly driver's license test preparation classes. A community college is designing a 15-hour course to help immigrants prepare. And the state's Department of Motor Vehicles has put together new audio materials in Spanish with months to go before the new licenses are issued.
The push comes after Nevada saw 90 percent of immigrants flunk the written test in the first few weeks a new driver authorization card was offered. The California DMV is also concerned that immigrants may not know they need to take a written test when they apply for a license, and that some applicants may not have the literacy proficiency needed to pass.
"What we're being sensitive to is we have a population that probably has never come to a DMV, doesn't really know what they can expect," said Lizette Mata, DMV's deputy director of special projects, who has been traveling the state to meet with community groups. "I've had people tell me: 'I didn't know I need to take the exam the day I applied.'"
California is one of a slew of states that recently approved driver's licenses for immigrants in the country illegally. As the nation's most populous state and home to immigrants from many countries, state officials want the new license in California to be an example for other states to follow.
Getting immigrants to pass the test is critical to ensuring the success of the new license. Supporters pushed for the license to make life easier for California's immigrants and to create safer road conditions for everyone, arguing that many immigrants already get behind the wheel but lack the training and testing required of other drivers and may not carry insurance.
The state expects 1.4 million people will apply for the license once it is available in 2015 and plans to open five new offices to handle the anticipated deluge of applications.
Like legal residents, the immigrants will need to provide proof of identity and pass written and road tests to obtain the license, which will contain a distinct marker.
After Nevada's high failure rate, immigrants have been urged to start preparing for the written test early.
"We didn't want to wait to the last minute," said Berenice Díaz Ceballos, consul of Mexico in Oxnard. She said her office has been holding information sessions about what prospective applicants should do to prepare, and has seen an uptick in requests for passports and consular ID cards, which may be required for the new licenses.
In Nevada, officials were surprised by the failure rate after they updated a Spanish version of the driver handbook and met with community groups to publicize the driver authorization cards, said David Fierro, a Nevada DMV spokesman. Since those first few weeks, the failure rate has fallen to about 66 percent, much closer to the 57 percent of those seeking a traditional license, he said.
"We didn't think the failure rate was going to be as high as it was," Fierro said. "The word circulated to people that there is a test, and if you don't know the answers, you're going to fail."
Passing the 36-question written test for a driver's license has long been a challenge for many in California. Roughly half of those who took the exam in English and more than 70 percent who took it in Spanish failed the first time, according to a study of 11,000 test forms filed with the DMV in 2005.
Immigrants in the country illegally may have an even harder time if they don't speak English well or have lower levels of education, Mata said. Immigrants who crossed a border illegally to get to the U.S. had fewer years of schooling than those who arrived with a visa, according to a 2008 report published by the Public Policy Institute of California.
Community groups across the state are also helping immigrants prepare.
After hundreds of people turned out to information sessions about the new license, Santa Barbara City College started planning a 15-hour course on traffic rules and how to interact with police for the fall.
"We have 800 to 900 people on a waiting list of people interested in a driving class," said José Martínez, coordinator of the college's community education center.
In Santa Ana, the Mexican consulate is offering a free monthly test preparation class for those who plan to apply for the license, said Arturo Sánchez, consul for press and commercial affairs.
José Luís Ramírez, a 43-year-old auto mechanic, knows how hard it is to pass the written test. The Santa Ana resident flunked twice when he applied while on a visitor's visa from Mexico, and passed only after he really studied. Now that his license — and visa — have expired, he's been driving without one, and took the class hoping to better prepare.
"People think they know everything and that's just not true," Ramírez said.