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Over half of the licenses issued in California this year went to undocumented drivers

In this Dec. 16, 2011 photo a police officer checks a driver's license at a sobriety check point in Escondido, Calif.  Starting Jan. 1, 2012, police in California can no longer impound vehicles from DUI checkpoints when the driver's only offense is driving without a license. The impounds have been controversial where critics say they are used to drive out illegal immigrants. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

In this Dec. 16, 2011 photo a police officer checks a driver's license at a sobriety check point in Escondido, Calif. Starting Jan. 1, 2012, police in California can no longer impound vehicles from DUI checkpoints when the driver's only offense is driving without a license. The impounds have been controversial where critics say they are used to drive out illegal immigrants. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)  (AP)

More than half of the driver's licenses issued in the first six months of this year in California have gone to undocumented immigrants, the state's Department of Motor Vehicles' office reported late last week.

According to data compiled by the DMV, immigrants received 397,000 of the 759,000 original driver's licenses issued in California since a new law went into effect that permitted undocumented immigrants to obtain a license provided they can prove their identity and California residency.

"The latest numbers reflect the continued successful implementation of AB 60," DMV Director Jean Shiomoto told the Los Angeles Times. "The DMV was determined to develop a process that would not only meet the stringent requirements of this new law, but also the unique needs of our newly expanded customer base."  

The surge in undocumented immigrants applying for licenses was expected by California officials, who last December opened four new DMV offices, and hired nearly 1,000 new workers to help manage an expected 1.4 million applications from undocumented residents.

In 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the law allowing undocumented immigrants in California to obtain the special license, which generally looks like the standard state driver's license but will have marks distinguishing it. The special licenses, for instance, will say "federal limits apply" and on the back say "This card is not acceptable for official federal purposes."

California budgeted an additional $141 million for handling the special license applications.

While state officials expected 1.4 million undocumented immigrants to apply for licenses in the first three years, in the first six months since the law has been enacted more than 1.1 million undocumented immigrants have so far taken the written test, and another 436,000 have taken the driving test.

"I think it was a surprise how many people actually came in in the first six months," Jessica Gonzalez, a DMV spokeswoman told the Sacramento Bee.

While the new law appears to be a success with many undocumented immigrants, it has not been an easy path as it faced detractors on both sides of immigration divide before it was enacted.

Immigrant-rights advocates did not want a license that was so different from the standard one that it would mark a person as undocumented. They felt it would be a magnet for discrimination by people such as landlords or merchants.

Many Republican lawmakers, as well as groups that favor strict immigration measures, opposed the license altogether, saying it rewards illegal behavior.

Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, which advocates for legal and limited immigration, chided California for making life easier for people in the country illegally, at the expense of citizens and legal residents.

"There are now 400,000 more signals to people all over the world that working illegally in California is encouraged by the government itself," he said.

Supporters of the law said it would make roads safer by ensuring that people were driving after having passed written and road tests and enabling them to have insurance.

"No longer are undocumented people in the shadows," Brown said when he signed the law in 2013.

So far, however, the California Department of Insurance does not have data available on whether the boom in new license-seekers has led to increased auto insurance sales, but anecdotal evidence does appear to show a slight uptick in people buying car insurance.

"We do have members saying they've seen an increase," Nicole Ganley of the Association of California Insurance Companies.

Includes reporting by The Associated Press.

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