Oct. 04--Oxnard resident Claudia Villegas knows the fear that comes from driving without a license -- and the relief of having one.
Now, an estimated 1.4 million California residents living in the country illegally could experience something similar. On Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill allowing such immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.
Villegas, 23, received her license in May through a prior state law affecting young immigrants enrolled in a federal deferral program the Obama administration created last year.
"It makes you feel good, being part of change and history," said Villegas, who was brought to California from Mexico when she was 6 months old.
Immigrant advocates have long lobbied for the change in the nation's most populous state. The licenses would carry a distinction on the front of the card that states the document may be used for driving, not as federal identification.
Most states don't allow immigrants in the country illegally to obtain licenses. But a growing number, including Colorado and Oregon, have passed similar measures to issue marked licenses for driving purposes only.
In California, Assembly Bill 60, authored by Democratic Assemblyman Luis Alejo, would grant licenses to anyone who passes written and road tests, regardless of immigration status. The licenses are expected to be issued by January 2015.
Alicia Flores, executive director of Oxnard's La Hermandad Mexicana, a California-based immigrant rights nonprofit, was in Los Angeles for the first of Brown's two signing ceremonies Thursday. The second was in Fresno.
"We are rejoicing," Flores said, adding she has been involved in advocacy efforts for such licenses for more than a decade.
"Finally, we got it from our governor," she said.
John Krist, chief executive of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County, said the local agriculture industry is heavily dependent on a large and mostly immigrant workforce.
"Anything that makes it easier and safer for them to get to work to harvest our crops and tend our fields -- that's a welcome development," he said.
The bill was supported by the state's Police Chiefs Association and insurance authorities.
Some oppose the change.
"I don't see why we have to bend our rules to provide U.S. driver's licenses for people who are breaking the law by being here," said George Miller, who cofounded the Ventura County Tea Party and is a founder of the local news site Citizens Journal. Miller said he was in favor of recognizing driver's licenses from other countries and international licenses.
Some immigrant advocates are not entirely pleased with the bill.
"Our group feels it's an important step in the right direction," said Elliott Gabriel, an organizer with the Todo Poder al Pueblo Collective. Part of the Oxnard group's efforts have been focused on helping unlicensed migrants tagged at sobriety/license checkpoints to understand their rights.
Gabriel said his group is concerned the specially marked licenses might become "a sort of scarlet letter" that could ultimately lead to more deportations.
"The undocumented community still lacks the right to due process under the present scheme of collaboration between local law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security'sImmigration and Customs Enforcement" unit, Gabriel said.
California Highway Patrol Officer Steve Reid, spokesman for the Ventura-area CHP, said the bill "doesn't change what we do on a daily basis at all."
During a traffic stop, immigration status is not an issue whether a person is licensed or not, he said.
Oxnard Police Department spokesman Miguel Lopez also said the new law won't change day-to-day operations.
Lopez added the department was an early adopter of a delayed tow policy at the city's DUI/driver's license checkpoints. Suspended licenses lead to automatic tows but unlicensed drivers have a 30-minute window to have a licensed driver pick up the vehicle.
State officials estimate 1.4 million drivers will apply for licenses under the law.
Brown predicted California's action will mean more states will follow.
"This is only the first step," he told a cheering crowd at the signing ceremony outside City Hall in Los Angeles. "When a million people without their documents drive legally and with respect in the state of California, the rest of this country will have to stand up and take notice. No longer are undocumented people in the shadows."
Villegas, who got her license in May, said she had driven without one for about eight years before that, starting when she had to find a way to get to high school.
"I was just scared: If I make a wrong stop, that's pretty much the end for me," she said, adding her school friends were unaware of her immigration status.
She has since put herself through college, having just graduated from CSU Channel Islands with a degree in political science. She plans to get a master's in public policy and administration from California Lutheran University.
"In the part of Oxnard where I live, 90 percent of the people work in the fields" and are unlicensed drivers, she said, adding she sees the worry and fear in people's faces every day.
"This is a huge step toward equality," she said of the new law.
-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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