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Applications for CA immigrant driver's licenses declining as numbers near 1M

Cars and trucks are slowly moving during the evening's rush hour on Hollywood Freeway (Highwayy 101) in Los Angeles California on February 13, 2014.     AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR        (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
As of this July, about 915,000 unauthorized immigrants had obtained California driver's licenses after they became available in January 2015.

There will soon be a million California drivers who obtained their driver licenses under a state law that allowed unauthorized immigrants to apply for permission to drive legally.

As of July, about 915,000 immigrants had obtained the special licenses that became available in January 2015. State Department of Motor Vehicles officials anticipate the million mark will be hit in the next few months. Updated license numbers for August will be released next month.

While there an initial rush to apply for the licenses, known as AB 60 for the Assembly bill that was adopted, DMV officials said the number of applicants each month has gradually declined since early last year, from about 27,000 in January 2016 to 11,000 this past June.

Officials couldn't speculate as to why, but some who've followed the program closely say it's likely a combination of factors: many who were going to apply have already done so and others who have not applied may be reluctant to do so. 

“The excitement that was part of the initial rollout obviously has waned a little bit," said Los Angeles City Council member Gil Cedillo. While a state lawmaker, he championed the licenses. "And then there’s another factor, and we see this in reporting crime, is that immigrants are not participating at the level we would normally expect them, because of the drama created by the Trump administration on the question of immigration.”

He said some eligible immigrants might fear deportation if their information is in a government database, and that more outreach may be needed to reach people who haven't applied.

California officials have said they have no plans to turn over data to the federal government, although law enforcement agencies do have access to motor vehicle records.

According to the California Immigrant Policy Center in Los Angeles, which campaigned heavily for AB 60, about 1.5 million immigrants in California were eligible for the licenses.

Carlos Amador, an organizer with the group, said some immigrants may be uninterested in applying for the special licenses because they don't drive, or can't afford to.

"Many individuals still don't have a car, or rely mostly on public transportation," Amador said. 

AB 60, which was authored by former state Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Salinas), was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013. It reversed a state measure that had stood since the 1990s requiring driver's license applicants to provide a Social Security number and proof that they were living legally in the U.S.

The debate over whether to provide unauthorized immigrants with driver's licenses was a heated one, with opponents arguing that doing so legitimatized immigrants living in the country illegally.

Proponents argued it would improve public safety by cutting down on unlicensed and uninsured drivers.

Stanford University study released earlier this year suggested that the driver’s license program led to about 4,000 fewer hit-and-run accidents in its first year, about a 10 percent drop over the previous year. Researchers concluded this after analyzing state traffic safety data and estimating each county's share of new AB 60 licenses.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the sponsor of AB 60 as state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens). Lara was a co-sponsor. The bill was authored by former state Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Salinas).