Oscar, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, waited in line behind six people at the Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services center in Plymouth Tuesday morning to take his written driver’s test.
Oscar’s nervous breathing was noticeable in the otherwise quiet office.
“There’s a lot of mixed feelings going on right now,” Oscar said. “It’s excitement—fear that I’m going to fail the test. Also, the uncertainty of going into a facility like this as an undocumented person is also worrying in a way.”
Oscar, a 29-year-old St. Paul resident who works in south Minneapolis, drove 30 minutes for his appointment. While he would have preferred a closer location, Tuesday was the earliest he could secure an appointment as Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services centers across the state accommodate a growing number of appointments for the knowledge tests, which quizzes applicants on the state’s driving laws.
Appointments are few and far between as Driver’s Licenses For All went into effect on Sunday, October, 1, giving up to 81,000 undocumented Minnesotans the ability to apply for a license. The law, which was signed in March, ended a 20-year requirement that applicants must show proof of legal residency to obtain a driver’s license.
As he filled out his driver’s license application form, Oscar, who is identified by his first name because he does not have immigration status, paused before checking a box next to a line that said, “I attest that I do not have a social security number.”
He then read a question asking if he had a driver’s license in a jurisdiction outside of Minnesota in the last ten years.
“Nope, that’s why we’re here,” he said, chuckling slightly and cutting the tension in what was a nerve-wracking morning.
Driving with both fear and privilege
Oscar met Sahan Journal at a picnic bench outside of the Driver and Vehicle Services office before his appointment. He wore sunglasses and a baby blue polo decorated with tiny white pineapples. He nervously twiddled his fingers as he spoke, a maroon leather folder next to him filled with documents he would have to show in order to take his test.
Oscar immigrated from Mexico to Minnesota 13 years ago with his parents at age 15. His parents and sister had appointments after him to take the written test.
Oscar said he tries to only drive within the Twin Cities, his most common route being his commute to work from St. Paul to south Minneapolis. He drives his own car, but also often relies on friends and family members for rides.
Despite his Mexican heritage, Oscar described himself as white-passing, and said that comes with a certain level of privilege.
“The chances of me getting pulled over are a little less than another person of color with more brown skin than I do,” he said, adding that he still drives with fear. “Every time you see the colors of the cop’s lights behind you, it’s like, ‘Are they coming for me,’ or, ‘What’s going on?’ But I know that because of my white-passing privilege, it’s most likely that they’re not coming for me.”
For undocumented drivers, being stopped by the police in traffic can result in a ticket for driving without a license, and sometimes, arrest and potential deportation.
That’s why Oscar advocated for Driver’s Licenses For All at the Minnesota Capitol this year.
“It was surreal—like, did it actually happen?” Oscar said, describing how he felt when the Senate passed its version of the bill. “I had really low expectations, because I didn’t want to have my family get so excited for something that might happen. But it passed.”
At the Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS) in Plymouth, Oscar filled out his application form then spoke with a DVS worker who asked for his passport.
“No social security number, right, sir?” the worker asked Oscar after looking at his form.
“No,” Oscar answered.
While the worker processed Oscar’s documents, two women in line spoke to each other in Spanish.
“They’re right, you know,” Oscar said, explaining that the women were discussing how confusing the Spanish language version of the knowledge test is.
The DVS worker sat behind a computer surrounded by piles of paperwork. Sheets of paper were plastered around the desk, including a list of fees for the different kinds of Minnesota licenses, a sign that said “no cell phone,” and information about obtaining a commercial learner’s permit.
The office had 16 test stations separated into cubicles, each with its own laptop and headphones. Oscar sat down at a computer about 10 a.m. to take his test.
One question short
Oscar walked out of the testing center about 30 minutes later, looking disappointed. He failed the test, getting nine questions wrong out of 40 multiple choice questions.
Driver and Vehicle Services requires a score of 80 percent, which is a minimum of 32 correct answers, or higher to pass the knowledge test. Applicants over age 19 who pass the test are given a temporary permit and can legally drive for three months before taking a road test to receive their driver’s license.
Oscar was one question away from passing.
“It was not like the practice test,” he said, shaking his head.
Oscar said he studied for about three hours using an app called “DMV Written Test,” which is not affiliated with Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services. He recommends people study straight from the Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services website instead. His mom and sister also failed their tests.
“We’ve been studying from this application from DMV and every time, I passed the test” on the app, Oscar said. “But these questions were completely different.”
Oscar scheduled another test. The next available appointment was November 2 in Hutchinson, about an hour and a half away.
Oscar’s dad, on the other hand, passed his knowledge test Tuesday. Because he has a Mexican driver’s license, Oscar’s dad gets a chance to take his road test sooner. While Oscar travels west on November 2 for his second round with the written test, his dad will be traveling two hours north to Duluth—the earliest he could take a road test to complete the driver’s license process.
Here’s what you need to know before you take a knowledge test in Minnesota
The knowledge test is made up of 40 multiple-choice questions. Driver and Vehicle Services requires an 80-percent score, at least 32 correct answers, to pass the knowledge test.
Once you pass, applicants over age 19 are given a temporary permit and can legally drive for three months before taking a road test to receive their driver’s license. Applicants 18 and younger have to practice for six months under a permit before they are eligible for a road test.
Oral tests are available at Driver and Vehicle Services in Eagan, downtown St. Paul, and Anoka. Applicants requesting an oral test should schedule the exam via email.
There are 26 exam stations with test computers that can read the test aloud in English, Karen, Russian, Hmong, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese. It can also deliver the test in American Sign Language. Test-takers can bring an interpreter to their appointment, if needed.
Unidos MN has compiled helpful tips and resources in Spanish here.
Driver and Vehicle Services recommends studying for the knowledge test with their manual, which is available below in English, Spanish, Somali, and Hmong.