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Despite new law, undocumented immigrants face issues getting driver’s licenses in Massachusetts

Sarah Takasaki is in a dimly lit classroom at South Congregational Church in downtown Springfield, sitting at a computer with a Spanish-speaking immigrant who’s undocumented.

Takasaki is a staff member with the Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center, a nonprofit that helps immigrant workers. And on this day, she's helping translate instructions for the RMV's learner's permit test.

The Workers’ Center partnered with another non-profit, the Pioneer Valley Project, to assist immigrants applying for driver’s licenses.

“Since we have access to computers [and] laptops with cameras, we can give people that option to do the exam here instead of at the RMV — where it's also a little more stressful,” Takasaki said. “We just [give] them their own space where nobody’s gonna enter.”

Sarah Takasaki (right), an organizer at the Pioneer Valley Workers' Center, walking through the instructions for how to take the RMV's learner's permit exam with an immigrant who is undocumented.
Nirvani Williams
/
NEPM
Sarah Takasaki (right), an organizer at the Pioneer Valley Workers' Center, walking through the instructions for how to take the RMV's learner's permit exam with an immigrant who is undocumented.

But even in a space with Wi-Fi, a private classroom, and a translator, logging onto the RMV’s website and navigating the platform is a challenge.

“It's a little bit difficult because the whole platform of the RMV's website is all in English and it doesn't really translate. So just translating the whole process of how to go through that … and a lot of people don't have online accounts that they're very familiar with entering into,” Takasaki said.

The test itself can be taken in Spanish, Haitian Creole, and several other languages, but first you have to get through the English parts of the website.

A representative from the Department of Transportation said the RMV offers instructions for how to navigate its website in 15 different languages. But organizers at these nonprofits say you still have to go through the website in English to get to the translated instructions, which further complicates an already difficult process.

The woman Takasaki was helping had Wi-Fi issues during her exam.

“We just re-entered into the whole thing again. Sometimes the page just closes without explanation,” Takasaki said.

The woman left without passing.

That’ll be another $30 she needs to spend just to retake the test in order to qualify for a driver’s license.

Leninn Torres is with the Workers’ Center.

“There are people that have tried probably four or five times, so just multiply that by $30. So it's like $150. And if it's a farmworker, it's like a day of work for them,” Torres said.

But before an applicant can even get approved to take the test, they have to present her documents at the RMV. That includes proof of Massachusetts residency, Social Security status, and a birth certificate, which needs a certified translation if written in any language other than English.

Torres is in charge of translating birth certificates — a service these nonprofits do for free.

“We have a list of different people who are getting a translation of their birth certificate or driver’s license from their country,” Torres said. “We’re only doing translations for people who have an appointment coming up.”

Torres said recently more people have been getting denied at those appointments. He said that’s because some RMV service center employees don’t know the requirements needed for undocumented immigrants.

Leninn Torres, an organizer at the Pioneer Valley Workers' Center, translates birth certificates in English for undocumented immigrants applying for their Massachusetts driver's license.
Nirvani Williams
/
NEPM
Leninn Torres, an organizer at the Pioneer Valley Workers' Center, translates birth certificates in English for undocumented immigrants applying for their Massachusetts driver's license.

“Sometimes it’s frustrating because we’re sending people in with the right paperwork, but when they get there one of them is not accepted,” Torres said.

Colleen Ogilvie leads the Massachusetts RMV.

“The integrity of the identity process is very important to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and employees are trained to look for documents with certain characteristics and the right kind of things," Ogilvie said. "But are there times that somebody may misjudge something? Certainly.”

At each RMV service center counter, there are translator phone lines available for customers who may need interpretation assistance.

But that translator phone service is really difficult for most people, according to Aina de Lapparent, who’s assisting undocumented immigrants in Pittsfield through Habitat for Humanity.

“I talked about this to someone who was working there and they were like, ‘Yeah, but we don't really use it.’ I don't know if it's that they don't like it or that, you know, sometimes things can get very granular and it's hard to get your question across through a phone,” Lapparent said.

Ogilvie said the RMV doesn’t have any plans for in-person translators to be hired in service centers across the state right now. But she said they do want to improve access to language services.

The challenges don’t end there though. They still have to take the road test.

“Part of the process is that people can either request an interpreter to be present during the road test or they can bring their own interpreter,” said Javier Luengo-Garrido, an organizer at the ACLU in Springfield.

He said sometimes the presence of an interpreter makes the RMV driving examiner suspicious.

“There are some instructions when you're taking the test, such as, 'Turn right at this corner,' that in English is a pretty concise and short sentence. In Spanish, it would be, ‘Por favor gira a la derecha en esta esquina.’ So, for somebody who is not necessarily fully bilingual or even proficient in the Spanish language, that larger sentence may create a false red flag — like this person is being coached,” Luengo-Garrido said.

Garrido said he’s been in meetings with RMV officials about issues, such as this one, arising for undocumented immigrants in the driver’s license application process.

The RMV is working on this issue, according to Ogilvie.

“That is a complaint that we did hear recently,” Ogilvie said. “We are working to address that by connecting the parties that provided that feedback with our ... road test management team, and the road test management team is working with the individual people that are providing those road tests.”

Despite these challenges, organizers at the nonprofits said they’re happy this is an option for undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts.

Emily Rodriguez with the Pioneer Valley Project said they’ve been working long hours to help as many applicants as they can.

“We stay until like 7pm or 7:30pm, if needed. But I know that a lot of people are relying on us to help them because otherwise they don't have anybody else here,” Rodriguez said.

As they take the time to assist these new legal drivers, Rodriguez said, she hopes the RMV can streamline the process to make it easier for everybody.

Nirvani Williams covers socioeconomic disparities for New England Public Media, joining the news team in June 2021 through Report for America.