LOS ANGELES Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill Thursday adding California to the growing list of states .
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.
Several immigrant advocates initially raised concerns that the marker will contribute to racial profiling. The bill includes protections against discrimination.
Brown predicted that California's endorsement of driver's licenses for immigrants 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."
Brown was scheduled to repeat the signing later in Fresno, the heart of the vast Central Valley agricultural region.
State and local officials touted the importance of getting immigrants properly trained and tested so they know how to drive and know traffic rules in California.
"That's what this bill is about, making the streets of this state safer," Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck told the crowd.
Over the last two decades, immigrant advocates have pushed to get licenses restored in California. The effort took on added significance in recent years as immigrants caught driving without a license began seeing their cars impounded and wound up being screened by federal immigration authorities for deportation.
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, the bill authored by Democratic Assemblyman Luis Alejo would grant licenses to anyone who passes written and road tests, regardless of immigration status.
State officials estimate 1.4 million drivers will apply for licenses under the law, which was supported by the state's Police Chiefs Association and insurance authorities.
It isn't clear whether entities like local government offices, libraries or banks will accept the license as a form of identification. The licenses are expected to be issued starting in Jan. 2015.
It isn't the first time. Led by former Democratic state lawmaker and current Los Angeles city councilman Gil Cedillo, the legislature passed license bills that were struck down by Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Under Brown, immigrant advocates saw a new opportunity to get a bill signed. The bill is one of several immigrant-friendly measures passed by the legislature this year, including overtime pay for domestic workers and an effort to scale back collaboration between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials.
Brown has enjoyed strong support among Latino voters, whose numbers are growing in California, and appears to sense how the broader public has become more welcoming toward immigrants even as the debate over an immigration overhaul has stalled in Congress, said Jaime Regalado, emeritus professor of political science at California State University, Los Angeles.
On the steps of City Hall, scores of immigrant rights activists and state and local officials chanted "champion" in Spanish at the mention of his name. In his speech, Brown urged lawmakers in Washington to move forward on more sweeping immigration reform.
Ismael Salvador, a 63-year-old factory worker from El Salvador, turned out to see the bill signing. He said the change will radically alter the lives of his two daughters who are in the country illegally. One risks driving every morning to her job as a lunch truck cook, and the other cleans houses and relies on rides because she is afraid to get behind the wheel.