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Illegal immigrants living in California will be eligible to apply for driver's licenses under a law signed on Thursday by Governor Jerry Brown, in the latest action to expand privileges for such immigrants in the state.
The legislation is a major victory for Latino and immigration rights activists, who have fought for decades for such a law, and it is expected to spur 1.4 million people to apply for licenses over three years.
The bill was previously passed by the Democrat-led state legislature on votes of 28-8 in the Senate and 55-19 in the Assembly. Brown initially threatened to veto it but changed his position after advocates promised it would not conflict with federal law.
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"This bill will enable millions of people to get to work safely and legally," Brown, a Democrat, said when he signaled his support of the bill. "Hopefully it will send a message to Washington that immigration reform is long past due."
At least nine states and the District of Columbia have passed laws enabling undocumented immigrants to drive legally, with many of those laws coming into effect in the past year.
The California measure will go into effect January 1, 2015, unless the state determines it can begin issuing the licenses sooner. The law's sponsor, Democratic Assemblyman Luis Alejo, said the state must still design the licenses.
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To conform with federal law, the licenses must show that the bearers have not presented a birth certificate or Social Security card. For example, he said, Utah licenses for people who cannot show they are in the country legally bear the words "temporary visitor's driver license" on the front.
"We need those living here and sharing our roads to be educated and insured," said Republican state Senator Anthony Cannella. "There are both social and financial reasons to provide licenses to immigrants who are part of our communities."