More than 1 million immigrants in the country illegally have obtained special California driver's licenses since the state first began issuing them a little more than three years ago, the state Department of Motor Vehicles announced Wednesday as officials hailed the number as a major milestone.
Assembly Bill 60, which took effect in January 2015, requires the DMV to issue driver's licenses if applicants can prove their identity and California residency, as well as meet all testing requirements, regardless of whether they can show they are in the country lawfully. As of March 30, about 1,001,000 immigrants have obtained the licenses, which are renewable after five years.
Supporters of the law argued that it would make roadways safer by requiring a driving test and providing less motivation for drivers afraid of being deported to flee the scene of a traffic accident.
Then-Assemblyman Luis Alejo, who wrote the landmark 2013 bill, called Wednesday's news a win for all Californians.
"It's been successful for over a million families who can now drive to work, take their kids to school in the morning or go see the doctor without fear that their car is going to be impounded," said Alejo, now a Monterey County supervisor. "Now their lives are better, and our roads and highways are safer for everyone."
The law passed after more than a decade of fierce debate. Critics at the time blasted California for giving out the licenses, saying they legitimize illegal immigration and make it easier for such immigrants to remain in the country.
The DMV originally estimated that 1.4 million immigrants were unlicensed and uninsured. In preparation for the new law, the department opened four additional driver's license processing centers, hired about 1,000 employees and extended office hours.
By the end of 2015, the DMV had issued 605,000 licenses under the law. Applications have since slowed to an average of 10,000 a month.
The front of the licenses includes the phrase "Federal limits apply," and the back states: "This card is not acceptable for official federal purposes. This license is issued only as a license to drive a motor vehicle. It does not establish eligibility for employment, voter registration, or public benefits."
California residents who can show they are in the country legally are able to obtain a so-called REAL ID that does not include the same language and qualifies as a federally-approved form of identification.
Immigrants in the country illegally were allowed to obtain driver's licenses throughout the U.S. until 1993, when California leaders decided to prohibit access and 46 other states followed suit. Now, 12 states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico allow immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority leaders attributed a decline in ridership over the last few years, in part, to the new licenses. Last year, the number of trips taken on Los Angeles County's bus and rail network fell to the lowest level in more than a decade.
Stanford University researchers found that hit-and-run accidents dropped by an estimated 7% in California after AB 60 went into effect. Their study, published last year in the National Academy of Sciences journal, found that the number of auto-related accidents and fatalities did not change overall. Researchers calculated that innocent California drivers saved about $3.5 million in out-of-pocket expenses for property damage in 2015 because of the law.
3:35 p.m., April 5: This story was updated to add details about the difference between the AB 60 licenses and California's REAL ID cards.