By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown said on Friday he would sign a bill authorizing the state to provide driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, a last-minute reversal of his position.

Brown said he approved of the measure, which its author had withdrawn on Thursday under the threat of a veto, capping a full day of lobbying by California politicians for immigration reform at the federal level.

"This bill will enable millions of people to get to work safely and legally," Brown, a Democrat, said in an email sent to reporters shortly after midnight. "Hopefully it will send a message to Washington that immigration reform is long past due."

Over the past year, nine states and the District of Columbia have passed laws enabling undocumented immigrants to drive legally. In California, lawmakers and governors have routinely rebuffed such efforts.

Just on Thursday, Assemblyman Luis Alejo, a Democrat from the agricultural town of Salinas, told Reuters that he was withdrawing the bill he had written until next year, largely because of concerns expressed by Brown.

The governor, Alejo said, wanted to make sure the new licenses complied with federal law requiring them to clearly indicate the driver was undocumented.

For example, he said, Utah licenses for people who cannot show they are in the country legally bear the words "temporary visitor's driver license" on the front.

Alejo said he would prefer California's licenses to be more discreet, with small wording on the back indicating that the license was not to be used for identification purposes.

He withdrew the bill, promising to bring it up again next year. But late in the day on Thursday, just hours before the legislature recessed for the year, Alejo accepted amendments that would make the distinction more clear.

After Brown's objections were satisfied, both houses of the state legislature quickly passed the bill, with a number of Republicans joining the Democratic majority to vote for it.

It was approved by votes of 28-8 in the California Senate and 55-19 in the Assembly.

"We need those living here and sharing our roads to be educated and insured," said Republican state Senator Anthony Cannella. "There are both social and financial reasons to provide licenses to immigrants who are part of our communities."

Latino organizations and immigrant rights groups welcomed the measure.

Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, called it "fundamental and way overdue."

Also on Thursday, Cannella led a group calling on Republicans in the U. S. Congress to take action on broader immigration reform.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

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