California has issued more than half a million driver's licenses to immigrants in the country illegally under a program that began nine months ago.

Armando Botello, a spokesman for the state's Department of Motor Vehicles, said Friday that the milestone was reached last week.

"For us, the DMV, it is a source of great pride to have reached half a million this soon. We thought we would issue half a million applications per year and we did it in 9 months. This means the DMV work is paying off and that all drivers will be safer now," said Botello.

The state started providing special permits in January, when a law took effect allowing unauthorized immigrants to obtain it with an identification document, proof of residence, and after passing a written and a driving exam.

Because the agency does not ask about race or ethnicity, it is not known how many of the five hundred thousand applicants are Latino. However, Botello said most are Hispanic.

The record number of licenses issued came as a surprise to the agency, which expected to reach the half a million mark by the end of the year, said Botello. According to DMV estimates, there is a total of 1.4 million potential applicants in the state of California.

"We thought we would issue half a million in one year and we did it in nine months. I think it will be difficult that we reach one million in the next nine months because there are fewer people coming to the office," the spokesman said.

The new licenses initially generated huge interest, with long lines at DMV offices in January and February.

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