By Alexia Shurmur
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Nevada's Republican governor signed a bill on Friday to authorize driving privilege cards for illegal immigrants in a move likely to win favor with the state's large and growing Hispanic community.
Governor Brian Sandoval, a moderate Republican of Mexican ancestry in a state where Hispanic residents comprise over a quarter of the population, signed the bill in a ceremony at the state Capitol.
The step comes during national efforts for immigration reform that saw a U.S. Senate panel approve legislation earlier this month that would usher in the biggest changes in immigration policy in a generation if passed by Congress.
"Allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver's privilege card will increase the number of drivers on Nevada's roads that are insured and aware of traffic rules and regulations," Sandoval said in a statement.
The Nevada law, which passed the Democratic-led state Senate and Assembly this month, will allow immigrants to use foreign birth certificates to obtain driving cards that would be valid for a year. It will take effect at the start of 2014.
Nevada requires proof of legal status in the country to obtain a full-fledged driver's license.
Sandoval said the card would not be accepted as identification and that applicants must still pass a driving test and understand traffic laws, and be required to obtain insurance.
A number of other states have also opted to grant driving rights to illegal immigrants, with Connecticut's legislature approving a bill allowing such licenses on Thursday. Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy said he would sign the bill.
Maryland, Illinois and Oregon adopted similar legislation this year, while illegal immigrants were already able to get licenses in New Mexico, Washington and Utah.
PITCHED AS SAFETY ISSUE
Sandoval has tried to avoid getting embroiled in the volatile fight over immigration that has drawn stark battle lines in neighboring Arizona, whose Republican governor has clashed with Washington over immigration.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has said that state would not issue driving licenses even to young immigrants who qualify for temporary legal status through a federal program. A federal judge, while letting that stand for now, has indicated such a stance could violate equal protection rights.
Jon Ralston, a political analyst in Nevada, said the issue of driver cards was "a blip on the radar" in Nevada when compared to issues such as a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
"Sandoval was able to parse this and play it as a public safety issue, not an illegal immigration issue," he said.
Laura Martin, communications director at the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, welcomed the move as a way to ease the lives of immigrants, many of whom already drive without proper licenses.
Opponents of the legislation, including Republican state Senator Don Gustavson, have said they did not want to support giving undocumented immigrants the right to drive legally.
"The overwhelming response that I received from my constituents is that they did not support SB 303," he said in a statement after the vote, referring to the bill.
(Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer and Peter Cooney)