SACRAMENTO -- In the legislative session's final rush, with hundreds of bills bouncing between chambers and then to the governor's desk or into oblivion, few moments were as emotional as when lawmakers voted to grant driver's licenses to immigrants who are in the country illegally.

Supporters say AB60 will have a tremendous impact not just on the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who'll soon be able to drive to their jobs, their children's schools and elsewhere without fear, but for all other drivers and passengers who'll be safer sharing roads with better-trained drivers who have car insurance.

The law will take effect Jan. 1, 2015, or sooner if the Department of Motor Vehicles is ready.

Though unyielding opposition to illegal immigration long has been a litmus test for conservatives across the nation, some Republicans -- including some who voted for AB60 -- have come to believe both that their districts would benefit from a more nuanced view, and that it could appeal to the ever-growing Latino electorate that has become a crucial swing vote in so many places.

For the immigrants themselves, the driver's license issue is something they grapple with every day.

Estefany Mendez of Concord said she's joyful that others will soon feel the relief she felt a few months ago when she got her driver's license.

"Definitely, it brings some sense of security and safety," she said Friday.

Mendez, 24, a freelance journalist born in Mexico but raised in Contra Costa County, got her driver's license in April thanks to last year's new law benefiting certain young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children who got temporary work permits under the Obama administration's "deferred action" program.

"I no longer drive in fear, watching out for police officers," she said, adding that the license gives her a feeling of place, of belonging. "Being undocumented has really opened my eyes and made me realize what an ID or Social Security card can mean to someone."

Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, stood flanked by a crowd of other Latino lawmakers on the Assembly floor late Thursday as he dedicated his bill to Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo, the former state legislator who tried for more than a decade to pass such a bill -- a long, divisive battle that triggered vetoes from two former governors.

The state Senate already had approved it 28-8, and moments after the Assembly's 55-21 vote -- as the chamber echoed with applause and a flurry of hugs, handshakes and backslaps -- Gov. Jerry Brown issued a rare, immediate statement of support.

Brown also has stated his intention to sign another Alejo bill -- AB10, to hike the minimum wage from $8 an hour to $9 next July and to $10 in January 2016 -- which was among the legislative session's most controversial and far-reaching.

But there's less certainty about what he'll do with the ton of other bills now crowding his desk: at least a dozen gun-control bills that would once again give California the nation's strictest gun laws; a partial withdrawal from a federal deportation program; and a bill to regulate oil and gas fracking.

Friday was the session's regularly scheduled end, but that conflicted with the start of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, so lawmakers spent most of the week in overdrive to finish by midnight Thursday.

Amid the rush, AB60's passage was a bit of a surprise: As late as Wednesday, Alejo had said he would sit on the bill until January to address concerns that licenses issued to immigrants in the country illegally would carry special markings to distinguish them from others.

The special markings were included so AB60 wouldn't run afoul of the federal Real ID Act, a 2005 law that deals with use of state driver's licenses for official purposes like boarding airplanes, entering government buildings and so on. California's marked licenses won't be able to be used for such things.

Though support was mostly Democratic, two Republican senators -- Anthony Cannella, R-Modesto, and Andy Vidak, R-Fresno -- and two Republican assemblymen -- Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, and Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo -- voted for it, too.

"There are both social and financial reasons to provide licenses to immigrants who are part of our communities," Cannella said.

Nobody spoke against the bill in the Senate, though a few Republicans spoke against it in the Assembly. Tim Donnelly, R-Hesperia, said that granting licenses to these immigrants would send mixed signals to businesses and landlords trying to abide by immigration laws -- and that the special markings would stigmatize the licenses' holders.

"It's offensive we are going to give people a separate but not-quite-equal identification," he said.

Some Democrats weren't happy with the markings, either, but chose to support the bill as better than nothing at all. "A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do," quipped gay Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco.

All immigrants used to be able to get driver's licenses in California, until a 1993 bill -- carried by the late Sen. Al Alquist, D-San Jose -- required that all license applicants provide a Social Security number as proof of legal residency. People who aren't in the country legally can't get a Social Security number.

Dan Stein, president of Federation for American Immigration Reform, whose group aims to reduce both legal and illegal immigration, issued a statement Friday blasting AB60 as a danger to "the security of every American."

"In Sacramento, bestowing benefits and privileges on illegal aliens trumps all other concerns. That is more than unfortunate; it is potentially catastrophic." But Arturo Carmona, executive director of the national online Latino political group Presente.org, said AB60's passage tells the nation and the world that the Golden State is "clearly moving away from the (Gov. Pete) Wilson era of anti-immigrant politics ... and we will continue to fight the remnants of the anti-immigrant era in California to the end."

Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.

highlights from LEGISLATURE's FINAL WEEK

Here are just some of the controversial or noteworthy bills that did or didn't reach Gov. Jerry Brown's desk at the end of this session.

PASSED

SB 374 by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento -- would add all semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines to the state's list of banned assault weapons.
SB 475 by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco -- would essentially ban gun shows at the Cow Palace by requiring approval from San Francisco and San Mateo supervisors for such shows.
SB 683 by Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego -- would require owners of long guns to earn safety certificates like those already required of handgun owners.
AB 48 by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley -- would ban conversion kits that allow people to turn regular magazines into high-capacity magazines.
AB 180 by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland -- would give Oakland an exemption from state pre-emption so it can pass its own stricter gun registration or licensing statutes.
AB 711 by Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-South Gate -- would ban use of lead ammunition in hunting.
SB 4 by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Calabasas -- would impose regulations on fracking and other alternative means of extracting oil and gas.
SB 109 by Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro -- would require that limousines for hire that have been modified to carry more passengers have at least two doors and one or two push-out windows to serve as emergency exits.
SB 135 by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Van Nuys -- would require that the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services develop a comprehensive earthquake early-warning system.
AB 4 by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco -- the TRUST Act, would partially withdraw California's cooperation in the federal Secure Communities deportation program.
*AB 10 by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville -- would hike the minimum wage from $8 an hour to $9 next July and to $10 in January 2016.
*AB 60 by Alejo -- would let illegal immigrants living in California obtain driver's licenses.

NOT PASSED

SB 47 by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco -- would have banned "bullet buttons" that allow fast swapping of rifle magazines.
SB 53 by Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles -- would have required background checks for ammunition purchases.
SB 323 by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Long Beach -- would have revoked the tax-exempt status of any "public charity youth organization," such as the Boy Scouts, that discriminates on the basis of gender identity, race, sexual orientation, nationality or religion.
SB 396 by Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley -- would have forced Californians to give up all ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, no matter when they were bought.
AB 604 by Ammiano -- would have required the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to set up a division to monitor production, transportation and sales of medical marijuana.
AB 976 by Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego -- would have allowed the California Coastal Commission to impose fines.

See longer version at mercurynews.com/government-politics.