Flanked by community leaders and immigration activists, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill on Thursday giving undocumented immigrants the right to obtain a driver’s license.
"This is only the first step," Brown told a crowd at the signing ceremony outside City Hall. "When a million people without their documents drive legally and with respect in the state of California, the rest of this country will have to stand up and take notice. No longer are undocumented people in the shadows."
Immigration activists have long lobbied for the change in the nation's most populous state so immigrants can drive without fearing being pulled over for a ticket, which could wind up getting them deported.
Brown scheduled a repeat of the signing ceremony later in Fresno, the heart of the vast Central Valley agricultural region.
"This is really a historic day for California," said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. "This is really simply about driving and ultimately about being able to engage in everyday activities that every American does."
Over the last two decades, immigrant advocates have pushed to get licenses restored in California. The effort took on new significance in recent years as immigrants caught driving without a license began seeing their cars impounded and wound up being screened by federal immigration authorities for deportation.
Most states don't allow immigrants living in the country illegally to obtain licenses. But a growing number, including Colorado and Oregon, have passed similar measures to issue marked licenses for driving purposes only.
In California, the bill authored by Democratic Assemblyman Luis Alejo would grant licenses to anyone who passes written and road tests, regardless of immigration status. The licenses would carry a distinction on the front of the card and state that the document may be used for driving, not as federal identification.
Several immigrant advocates initially raised concerns that the marker will contribute to racial profiling. The bill includes protections against discrimination.
State officials estimate 1.4 million drivers will apply for licenses under the law, which was supported by the state's Police Chiefs Association and insurance authorities.
It isn't clear whether entities like local government offices, libraries or banks will accept the license as a form of identification. The licenses are expected to be issued starting in January 2015.
It isn't the first time the California legislature passed a measure giving licenses to immigrants in the country illegally. Led by former Democratic state lawmaker and current Los Angeles city councilman Gil Cedillo, the legislature passed license bills that were struck down by former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Under Brown, immigrant advocates saw a new opportunity to get a bill signed. The bill is one of several immigrant friendly measures passed by the legislature this year, including overtime pay for domestic workers and an effort to scale back collaboration between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials.
Brown has enjoyed strong support among Latino voters, whose numbers are growing in California, and appears to sense how the broader public has become more welcoming toward immigrants even as the debate over an immigration overhaul has stalled in Congress, said Jaime Regalado, emeritus professor of political science at California State University, Los Angeles.
"The timing seems to be there in a sense, and I think Brown is very good at understanding votes and understanding timing," Regalado said. "He wants to be ahead of the curve."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.