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House sends immigrant driver's license bill to Senate

Opponents point to 2014 election, when voters rejected giving undocumented people a license to drive.

CLAIRE WITHYCOMBE/OREGON CAPITAL BUREAU - Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, D-Woodburn, speaks in support of a bill to allow undocumented immigrants and others without proof of legal residence to get an Oregon driver's license.SALEM — The Oregon House Tuesday passed legislation that would once again allow the state to issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants and others who can't prove they are legal residents.

Democrats Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon of Woodburn and Rep. Diego Hernandez of Portland carried House Bill 2015, which passed 39-21 Tuesday morning after about 30 minutes of discussion. It now heads to the Senate.

PMG/EO MEDIA/SRIn 2014, Oregon voters rejected a measure to create a separate driver's card for people without proof of legal residence. But the bill House members approved June 18, if it makes it through the Oregon Senate by the end of the legislative session, means that people who can't prove they're in the country legally may be able to get another type of license that the DMV already offers.

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks many states, including Oregon, allowed people to get driver's licenses without proving their residence. In 2007, then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat, issued an executive order saying requiring people applying for drivers' licenses, driving permits and ID cards to document their citizenship or that they were in the U.S. legally.

The federal government also began enacting stricter standards for identification for airplane passengers called Real ID.

Without an avenue to get a driver's license, many undocumented immigrants could not legally get to work or to doctor's appointments, Alonso Leon said in a floor speech. If they drive without a license, they risk being deported if caught.

Alonso Leon described the impact on people who could not drive to get to work, school or other obligations. She said that being unable to drive legally is hard especially for people who live in rural areas, where public transportation is minimal or nonexistent. Some have lost their livelihoods because they don't have a license, Alonso Leon said.

"Imagine the pain and frustration that parents must feel when they can't do that simple task," said Alonso Leon, whose voice began to break with emotion. "The simple task like going to the grocery store, to buy baby formula, diapers, over-the-counter medication. While this has been challenging for many parents, they are not deterred. They have taken to walking for miles to get to work or to that grocery store, on shoulder-less, dim roads, to make sure that their children have their basic needs."

Difficult decisions

The bill, which still requires people to take the driver's test and pay the associated fees for a license, would benefit not just undocumented immigrants, Alonso Leon said. Oregonians who have lost their documentation for whatever reason — to a natural disaster, domestic violence, or are homeless — could also get licenses to drive under the new provision.

Hernandez emphasized public safety and pointed to Connecticut, which he said passed a similar bill four years ago and has seen a decline in hit-and-run incidents. Licensed drivers in Oregon must have car insurance.

The vote was largely along party lines, with most Democrats voting for the bill and most Republicans voting against it. However, there were some departures from the party line, including Republican Rep. Cheri Helt of Bend.

"We are a nation of immigrants," Helt said. "Immigrants have contributed and continue to contribute to the well-being and the progress of our American society, but currently they are faced with the difficult decision of choosing to take their kids to school or breaking the law. This bill will allow parents to safely and legally drive their children to school."

Helt said she supported legal immigration, but that undocumented immigrants needed a pathway to citizenship. "Until the federal government steps up to create one, I will be supportive of mothers and fathers who are simply wanting to take their children to school safely and legally," Helt said.

'Listen to the people'

The bill contains what's known as an emergency clause, which means it will go into effect immediately once Gov. Kate Brown signs it.

It also means that opponents can't refer the bill to voters via the initiative process.

Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, who opposed the bill, moved to send the bill back to the House Rules Committee to remove the emergency clause so that voters could consider the measure in 2020. "Listen to the people," Post said, referring to 2014, when voters rejected a similar policy.

Supporters of the new bill have said they believe the political environment around immigration has changed after the 2016 presidential election. They pointed to the failure of Measure 105, a state ballot measure last fall that would have repealed Oregon's decades-old law that prevents state and local law enforcement for expending resources to "detect or apprehend" people whose only violation of the law is being here without legal permission.

Reporter Claire Withycombe: cwithycombe@eomediagroup.com or 971-304-4148. Withycombe is a reporter for the East Oregonian working for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.