By Richard Weizel
MILFORD, Connecticut (Reuters) - Connecticut joined other U.S. states that allow illegal immigrants to get a driver's license, with the state Senate narrowly approving the measure on Thursday without a single Republican vote.
Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy said he would sign the bill, which passed the Senate by a 19-16 vote, after a highly divisive debate that lasted overnight.
"This bill is first and foremost about public safety. It's about knowing who is driving on our roads, and doing everything we can to make sure those drivers are safe and that they're operating registered, insured vehicles," Malloy said.
It was previously approved by the House, and no Republicans in either chamber voted in favor.
The new law, which will make 54,000 undocumented immigrants eligible for a driving license, takes effect on January 1, 2015. There are about 120,000 illegal immigrants in Connecticut.
Several other states, including Maryland, Illinois and Oregon, adopted similar legislation this year. Illegal immigrants are already licensed to drive in New Mexico, Washington and Utah.
Among the Republicans denouncing the bill was Senator Toni Boucher, ranking member of the Senate's Transportation Committee, who said a recent poll of Connecticut residents showed overwhelming opposition to the move.
"Convicted felons outside Connecticut can come here and have a driver's license within 90 days, and that is deeply disturbing to me," said Boucher, who made an impassioned plea against the bill on the Senate floor.
The bill's supporters argued it would ensure undocumented immigrants are given driving tests and the right to obtain car insurance. The measure could also provide additional state revenue from registration fees and car taxes, they said.
"This is an important public safety measure that ensures drivers on the road possess the necessary qualifications and insurance," said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney.
"Reliable transportation is a necessity in modern life. The need to earn a living does not vanish just because a person does not have the appropriate immigration credentials. Most undocumented immigrants would like to operate vehicles within the law."
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Bernadette Baum)