Sen. Andres Ayala, Jr., D-Bridgeport, was sworn in last month as the next commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles, becoming the first Latino in Governor Malloy’s administration to be named a department head.
Ayala, 45, a social studies teacher who was the president of the Bridgeport City Council before winning three terms in the House and two in the Senate, has taken over the DMV as it implements the Drive Only Program, a state law authorizing the issuance of special driver’s licenses to immigrants who have no legal status in the United States.
“To have that coincide, roughly speaking, with the appointment of a Latino commissioner fluent in Spanish, I think, sends an important message to a large segment of our population, both documented and undocumented, that Connecticut is a state in which we will treat all of our residents fairly,” said Malloy as he introduced Ayala at a press conference at the State Capitol
In an exclusive interview, Commissioner Ayala shared with the Tribuna his thoughts on the work ahead with the department, and the implementation of the Drive Only program.
Tribuna: So how do you feel your personal, political and professional experiences have prepared you to lead the DMV during this time when the agency is going through some transitions and implementing new programs?
Commissioner: From a personal point of view, I have my parents to thank. They provided for me a great education to provide a foundation for all of my professional success, from becoming an educator in the Bridgeport High School system for 21 years to running for office at the local level at the city council, from becoming the first Latino to be council president, then from there working my way up to the state house, from being a state rep for three terms and then to finally serving as state senator, the first Latino state senator in Connecticut.
On the political side of it, I have to thank my constituency from the city of Bridgeport and the town of Stamford.
Every time that I have had the opportunity to run for office and to count on their support, they have been there for me. Because of that, I have been able to then use that valuable experience as a public servant to create this opportunity where I am right now as a commissioner of the DMV. I’m very, very grateful to Governor Malloy for naming me the commissioner of the DMV, for placing his trust in me, that I can do the job.
Tribuna: Although you weren’t commissioner during the planning process of the Drive Only Program, you were at the helm of its implementation and as a legislator, I believe you voted in favor of the program?
Commissioner: Absolutely! I sure did. I was a big supporter of the Drive Only legislation. And let me just start by saying that the previous administration, Commissioner Currey and the staff people here at the DMV, have done an amazing job in ensuring that the Drive Only Program could be as successful as it is at this point. Like anything else, there are always going to be little things that come up but because of the work of community advocates, the Tribuna Newspaper and all the other community groups, we have been able to stem the tide of misinformation, of people up here doing things or saying things that are inaccurate.
Tribuna: Do you know how many Drive Only applicants the DMV has been able to process thus far?
Commissioner: As of January 28, the number of appointments that have been made thus far totals over 34,000. I think at this point we are going into maybe September-October as far as people who are scheduled. Since January 2, when we started doing the knowledge test, 2,270 people have actually taken the test. Out of those 2,270 people, so far we have 1,710 people who have passed the test. So it is going phenomenally well and once again it is a testament to the work done by community groups and everybody ensuring that people are studying, ensuring that people are doing everything that they need to do, to be able to come into the DMV and get processed, take the test and pass.
Tribuna: Compared to the pass rates for verified and non-verified driver’s licenses, how are the pass rates for Drive Only applicants faring?
Commissioner: I would say they are actually right on target. I think as far as verified and non-verified applicants, those who have legal status in country, [the pass rates] are at around 70 percent. With our Drive Only applicants, we are seeing the same numbers, which is really good since in other states that have a Drive Only program, the numbers are dismal and most applicants are failing the test. In Connecticut, our folks are doing much better.
Tribuna: You recently hosted a meeting with grassroots community organizations and shared some numbers with them. Some of those positive numbers you have already shared regarding the number of applicants processed and their pass rates. But there were also some alarming trends regarding a very high number of applicants that didn’t have the proper documents to prove their residency in the state. Can you share a little bit your thoughts about that and how the community can help the DMV by being better prepared?
Commissioner: Sure. Like anything else, it has a lot to do with education and people having the information at hand. A lot of what we find is that when people are bringing the wrong document it is because someone said, “You can use that one or you can do this or you can do that.” But as long as people are following the official document checklist provided to them, they are going to find it easy. If you want to go out there and kind of guess at which documents are going to be accepted, you are not going to be successful.
It is important to not let yourself get persuaded by people who may not necessarily have your best interest in mind. Just go by what’s on the official DMV website, and by the information that the community groups and the Tribuna are providing and you should be okay.
Tribuna: Another concern that continues to be raised is whether the information given to the DMV is going to be shared with immigration officials.
Commissioner: Absolutely not. The DMV does not share any list with anybody; we are not providing any list to Homeland Security or anything like that whatsoever. Now, what I will say and this is per our legal department, if there is an isolated incident whereas let us say John Doe committed some kind of a felony or is being wanted for something that this one individual did, if we are subpoenaed to turn in the information in that case, we would have to. But that is only because someone has committed a really grave crime, something very serious. So I would say 99 percent of the people who are hardworking individuals and want to get this license to be able to get to and from work, to be able to get to and from school to take their kids, to do chores, to do the things that they need. If they are not going to be involved in any criminal activity, they should absolutely have no fear whatsoever of having documents turned over to immigration.
Tribuna: During the meeting for the community leaders, another point that was stressed was the DMV’s commitment to also making sure that people are having a good experience as customers when they come in and interact with the agency. Could you please explain about the systems that are in place if one feels that he or she has been wronged in some sort of way in the process?
Commissioner: Let me start by saying that my vision for what the DMV is and should be is always centered on the customer. We want to make sure that every customer that comes into DMV is going to be treated in a way that they are valued, that we are glad that they are there and that we want to service you. So that is first and foremost the thing on my mind and for the most part, I would say it is on the mind of every single frontline staff. Now are there issues that happened throughout the day where someone may feel that they don’t necessarily get that type of service? I would say that complaints in issues like that are without a shadow of a doubt not the norm. But with that said, we want to strive to ensure that customer service is always at the forefront of everything that we do because we understand who our customers are. They are the people of the State of Connecticut, whether they are here with documents or with no documents.
For any person that has any issue at any of our branches, there is a customer bill of rights. If they disagree with any decision that any one of our frontline staff are making, they can request to speak to a supervisor. That supervisor would then take the matter in his or her hands and would analyze the situation.
Now mind you, like I said, there might be situations where unfortunately, the desk person and the supervisor are actually following the policy and procedure of the DMV and the customer may not like it. In that case, they can call our office here, at the office of the commissioner, and they can speak to one of our people who will be ready to service them. And we would do further research and further work to find out if there really is an issue and to find an answer. Here is the thing that I would like to let your readers know; the DMV is not always wrong. There might be issues where the customer is the one who is wrong and unfortunately, we can’t do the transaction. But we are happy to provide information on how that person can correct whatever problems might exist so that we can get them processed.
Tribuna: What is your message to the next Drive Only applicants in the community, especially the immigrant community, as far as how you want the DMV’s relationship with the community to be going forward and the top things an applicant should know before interacting with the DMV?
Commissioner: Sure. First and foremost, I want the people who are accessing this Drive Only Program to know that they have a DMV that is here to serve. That is our primary function, to provide service to the people of Connecticut. What I would say in regard to the Drive Only Program is that people should not rush into getting an appointment if they are not ready to take a test. So what do I mean by that? I mean that number one, ensure that you have the proper documentation, ensure that you have the proper address verification. If you don’t have that first step taken care of, you are never going to get to the second step. So make sure that you don’t make appointments until you have everything that you need.
Then secondly, and probably more importantly, is study, study, study. I mean it would be a shame to go and get all your documentation, to go pay the fee to take the test and then come and take the test and you are not prepared for it. I know that it is a new program and people are excited about it but I would suggest and advise people to ensure that they are ready to actually go through this and have everything. You will find that if they pay all this extra attention to [preparation] that their experience with the DMV will be a lot better because they are going to be successful. What ends up happening when someone is not successful and they don’t pass the test then all of a sudden, they say that the DMV is the worst thing ever; they failed me. Well, you know what? As a teacher, I tell everyone I never fail students, I pass students. Now if you don’t do the work necessary you can’t pass.
Commissioner: I thank you personally. I thank your newspaper, your organization, for leading the way in your community to ensure that your community is well informed, to make sure that they have the proper information. And once again, kudos to your organization for going out there, doing the translation to make sure that you are providing the resources so that people in your community can be successful. It is because of people like you, it is because of the newspaper and you informing our public that we are able to be as successful as we are.