SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - California issued about 131,000 driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants in January and February, the first two months since the state began granting the permits to people who are in the country illegally, officials said Friday.
The most populous U.S. state joined nine others and the District of Columbia in granting licenses to drivers regardless of immigration status, a controversial move that marked a significant shift in policy toward immigrants in California.
The law's backers say they expect an estimated 1.4 million driving age immigrants to apply for licenses over the next three years. Between 2 million and 3 million unauthorized immigrants are believed to live in California, making them the nation's largest such population.
The state issued 59,000 of the licenses in January, and 72,000 in February, the Department of Motor Vehicles said.
By comparison, the state in February issued about 49,000 licenses to residents of the state who are here legally, the DMV said, for a total of 121,000 during the month. During February of 2014, the state issued a total of only 69,000 licenses, the state said.
Not everyone who applied for a license was granted one. Altogether, about 387,000 undocumented immigrants applied for licenses during the first two months of the program, the state said, but only 131,000 were granted them.
Immigrants applying for the licenses must still prove their identities with birth certificates or other means, the state said, and must pass a driving test.
To meet the concerns of state law enforcement and others, the licenses have a marker that says "federal limits apply," which is meant to prevent them from being used for identification purposes to board an airline and for other federal purposes.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein)