- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 3, 2013

California’s governor signed a bill Thursday granting illegal immigrants driver’s licenses, in a decision immigrant rights groups hailed as a major step forward for their movement.

The country’s largest state becomes the latest to reverse course and grant legal driving privileges to illegal immigrants.

“No longer are undocumented people in the shadows. They are alive and well and respected in the State of California,” Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, said as he signed the measure in Los Angeles.

The state has until the beginning of 2015 to set up the new licenses, but Mr. Brown said when they are in effect, the state will be safer.

Mr. Brown still has several other major immigration bills pending on his desk that he must sign or reject by Oct. 13, including one that would let local police ignore immigration authorities who ask that dangerous criminals be held for transfer to the federal government.

The new California licenses will have special markings that show they aren’t supposed to be used as identification for federal purposes, but they will allow illegal immigrants to drive legally and, advocates said, to own cars.

In addition to granting the licenses, the bill makes it illegal to discriminate against someone because they have the special licenses, and specifically prohibits police from investigating or arresting someone for immigration violations because they have the illegal immigrant license.

Advocates said allowing illegal immigrants to become licensed means better safety and lower insurance rates for all drivers, since those illegal immigrants who choose to go through the legal process will have to take a driver’s test and follow the rules for obtaining insurance coverage.

“The governor’s signature on AB60 opens a window of opportunity unfairly closed shut to millions of Californians in 1993,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “The state Legislature and the governor recognize a driver’s license makes our roads safer and offers a practical tool any Californian, regardless of immigration status, can use to conduct everyday tasks that greatly contribute to our state’s growth.”

Immigrant rights groups view licenses as a major step toward equality for illegal immigrants.

But the issue has been divisive.

In the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, New York’s plans to grant licenses to illegal immigrants became a major issue, and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s initial support for the policy caused her to stumble.

Most states still ban illegal immigrants from obtaining licenses, but several have moved in the last two years to open up the process.

Illinois acted earlier this year to grant licenses but, like California, also decided they will have special markings making it clear they are not valid as identification for federal purposes, such as boarding an aircraft.

The federal Real ID law requires states that grant driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants to distinguish those from regular licenses.

The District of Columbia is also considering whether to grant illegal immigrants driver’s licenses, but the effort has run into problems with advocates saying they want the same kind of license as legal residents, not the specially delineated version.

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