Multi-American

How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

California DMV hiring 900 to serve immigrant drivers

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California's Department of Motor Vehicles is on a massive hiring blitz as it prepares for a new customer base: an estimated 1.4 million immigrant drivers living in California illegally.

AB 60, a new law taking effect Jan. 1, allows immigrants to apply for licenses despite their lack of legal status. DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez said the agency has hired more than 400 people and plans to bring on another 500 by January.

"It's a huge undertaking and we've really been working on this since Gov. Brown signed the bill in October 2013," Gonzalez said.

The new hires will help staff four temporary DMV sites created for the expected uptick in business. Offices in Lompoc, Stanton, Granada Hills and San Jose will stay open for three years, though Gonzalez said leases could be extended depending on demand. More workers could also be hired; the governor's budget allows for up to 1,000 new positions, Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said that all DMV employees are also required to undergo a fresh round of diversity training to prepare for the immigrant applicants.

"There could be a language barrier," Gonzalez said. "There could be religious issues. And to know how to handle that without immediately saying 'no' because it's not in your everyday norm."

The DMV has a willing partner in the union representing the majority of DMV workers, Service Employees International Union Local 1000.

Ted Burnett, the union's statewide coordinator, said that the union is in support of immigrant rights and is on board with all the changes at the agency.

"For us, it's more of a social justice thing," Burnett said.

His concern is that the applicants themselves will not be ready. In the first few weeks after Nevada launched its driver's license program for immigrants last year, 90 percent of applicants failed the written test. Burnett said DMV workers are reaching out to community organizations.

"The DMV is opening up a lot of classes with immigrants to talk about what's on the tests, give them practice tests and take away the intimidation factor," Burnett said.

The DMV cleared a major hurdle last week when the Department of Homeland Security approved changes to California's license design that made it clear it was not to be used for federal purposes. DHS had previously faulted the design for looking too much like a standard license.

Federal officials added that their finding did not rise to a "formal approval of the design." But Gonzalez said the DMV "feels the AB 60 license design satisfies the requirement so for us we are moving forward with this design."

DMV's remaining work includes finalizing what documents immigrants must provide to verify their identity. Over the last year, the agency has held four hearings around the state eliciting recommendations. The DMV is planning to release a list of acceptable documents for public comment before it can get a final stamp of approval by the state Office of Administrative Law.

This story has been updated.

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