New York: Licenses for illegal immigrants: Big business for driving schools

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Oct 10 13:13:27 UTC 2007,0,3404648.story
Licenses for illegal immigrants: Big business for driving schools

Associated Press Writer

11:44 AM EDT, October 8, 2007


Domenico Pinto's driving school has always banked on immigrants.

When he opened his business in Queens nearly 40 years ago, it was to
help Italians learn enough English to take the written exam for a
driver's license. Soon, waves of immigrants from other countries began
arriving at his school in hopes of learning the rules of the road in
their new home. Then Sept. 11 came, and customers dropped off as the
government began requiring drivers to provide federal immigration
documents to prove they were in the country legally. "I don't even
know if they were supposed to be here, but that's not for me to say,"
he said. "When the rules changed, we lost at least 30 percent of our

But business may be booming again now that illegal immigrants will
soon be able to get driver's licenses in New York under a plan by Gov.
Eliot Spitzer. New York City alone is home to an estimated 500,000 to
1 million illegal immigrants, and many will likely turn to the city's
dozens of driving schools for help with their newfound driving
privileges. The new business will be welcome, but owners aren't quite
sure what to think about the political policy attached.

"It's a mixed bag," Pinto's son and partner Michelangelo Pinto said of
Spitzer's plan. "On one hand it will boost our business, but on the
other we hope that all the necessary steps are being taken to secure
everyone's identity." Spitzer's plan has drawn considerable opposition
since it was announced last month, with conservatives saying it
invites terrorism. Spitzer argues the plan _ requiring a valid
passport to get a license, with additional anti-fraud measures _ will
bring "people out of the shadows" when it goes into effect in

He says it will make the roads safer, because many of the undocumented
immigrants are driving without a license and car insurance or with
fake licenses. Similar policies have been adopted in Utah, New Mexico
and other states, but the Department of Homeland Security is pushing
all 50 states to tighten their identification standards. In New York,
where 7 million rely on public transportation every day, getting
behind the wheel isn't a rite of passage, and driver's ed is not a
high school staple like it is in many places around the country. Plus,
the chances of someone owning a car to borrow for practice is slim.

So eager drivers must seek out professional help at a driving school
in one of the city's five boroughs. The businesses usually offer help
with a written test required for a learner's permit, and they provide
hands-on driving instruction to help with the road test. The state
Department of Motor Vehicles recommends at least 30 hours of practice
before the road test. The schools are usually set up in storefronts
along busy intersections crammed with traffic. Parking is scarce, so
school vehicles are stowed on the street, double parked, of course,
and driving instructors pick up and drop off students.

Students are often immigrants learning to drive, but their native
language depends on the neighborhood, Domenico Pinto said. In his part
of Queens, he gets mostly Spanish speakers, but he says instructors
and students in other neighborhoods speak Korean, Russian and Chinese.
Kids going away to college, people moving away from the city and in
need of a car, or residents who have no patient family members
generally make up the rest of the students. Some, like The
Professional Driving School in midtown Manhattan, teach diplomats who
don't need a license, but need to learn the rules of the U.S. roads.

"Cultural barriers exist no matter what your legal status is," said
Jaye Joubert, a driving instructor there for nearly a decade. "It's
important to learn the customs and rules of proper driving here." To
ease the language barrier at the Pintos' Ferrari Driving School, most
of the school's employees are bilingual, and Michelangelo Pinto is
working to create a CD that has training and testing commands that
customers need to know in English first explained in their native
language. He is also working to develop an in-car video which
demonstrates training techniques in any language. Victor Castro, 33,
just got his Commercial Driver's License from Ferrari _ something he
needs to drive a tractor-trailer for work.

To learn, he wound the massive rig up and down busy New York streets,
making hairpin turns and avoiding parked cars. Not exactly like
driving on the quiet, open freeway or back home in the Dominican
Republic. "I felt like there were enough people who spoke Spanish that
between the two languages I learned a great deal," he said. "I feel
comfortable driving a big truck and I didn't really before. And now I
can get more work."

Amid the uproar over the Spitzer plan, driving instructors say classes
for newcomers are necessary and whether that person is legally or
illegally in the U.S. really isn't the issue. That is because schools
can't teach people without proper documents. For example, to take a
road test, the student has to have valid permit, meaning they would
have to have presented valid documents to get the permit in the first
place. "It's not something anyone can fake," said Pinto. "Either you
have the right papers for the government or you don't."

Copyright (c) 2007, The Associated Press

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