By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - 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.
It represents a significant departure from past policy in California, which joins nine other states that allow undocumented immigrants to drive legally. But the law stands in stark contrast to policy in states like Arizona, which recently widened its ban on licenses for those in the United States illegally.
"Millions of immigrant families have been looking forward to this day," said Democratic Assemblyman Luis Alejo, who sponsored the bill. "It will allow them to go to work, go to school, take their kids to a doctor's appointment without fear that they are going to have their car taken away from them, or worse, be put into immigration proceedings."
Alejo gave a nod to former a former state senator and current Los Angeles City Council member, Gil Cedillo, who introduced a similar bill year-in and year-out, only to have it fail to pass or be vetoed.
He said the new law was a signal to Congress, which has so far failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform despite considerable momentum on the issue earlier this year.
"When Congress fails to act, it forces states like California, with (the) largest immigrant population in country, to enact laws to improve the lives of immigrants," Alejo said. "It's certainly a message that California is leading the way and that we're going to continue to pass legislation that will help integrate immigrants into our society."
The bill was passed by the Democrat-led state legislature on votes of 28-8 in the Senate and 55-19 in the Assembly.
It won support from nearly half of the legislature's Republicans, who broke ranks with their national leaders to support a number of protections for illegal immigrants at the state level and urged Congress to act.
On Thursday, a Republican Assembly leader who had not been part of that group criticized the bill as part of a "piecemeal" rather than comprehensive approach to immigration reform.
But then he went on to urge Congress to act.
"As Americans, we need to find compassionate, caring solutions to this immigration challenge," said San Diego County Assemblyman Brian Jones. "The first challenge is to secure our borders. The second challenge is to find a way for people to have legal status."
A conservative Republican assemblywoman, Diane Harkey of Orange County, said earlier that the measure could lead to racial profiling, because the licenses would be different from those issued to legal residents.
Brown initially threatened to veto the bill but changed his stance after advocates promised it would not conflict with federal law.
"This bill will enable millions of people to get to work safely and legally," Brown, a Democrat, said when he signaled his support. "Hopefully it will send a message to Washington that immigration reform is long past due."
The California law will go into effect January 1, 2015, unless the state determines it can begin issuing the licenses sooner.
The state must still design the licenses. To conform with federal law, the licenses must show that the bearers have not presented a birth certificate or Social Security card.
Alejo said he would prefer the California licenses be discreet, with small wording on the back indicating the license was not meant for identification purposes. The law bars discriminating against people with the special licenses.
Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, called the law "fundamental and way overdue."
"A driver's license makes our roads safer and offers a practical tool for any Californian, regardless of immigration status, that can be used to conduct everyday tasks that greatly contribute to our state's growth," Salas said.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Steve Orlofsky)