(Caleb Wolf - Special to Salem Reporter)
SALEM — Undocumented immigrants and others who can’t prove they are in the country legally could get a driver’s license under a proposal in the state House.
With less than two months before the Legislature adjourns, though, there has been no action since lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Transportation took testimony on the bill in mid-April. The committee is scheduled to work on the bill in about two weeks.
Supporters say that the bill, by allowing drivers who are undocumented to get licensed and to get car insurance, could make roads safer, for instance reducing the number of hit-and-runs by uninsured drivers.
They say that if the bill is passed, undocumented immigrants would no longer need to rely on their teenage children or other people with legal status to get to work or other obligations — especially in the state’s rural areas, where driving long distances is par for the course.
The bill would take effect immediately if passed.
It directs the transportation department to start offering licenses to people without proof of legal status starting in 2021.
The bill has 36 sponsors in the House — more than half of all its members.
One of the bill’s chief sponsors, Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, said that’s far from a guarantee that House Bill 2015 would pass.
This week, legislative matters on the other side of the Capitol have ground to a halt, as the Senate hasn’t had enough members to conduct business for days due to the absence of most Republicans.
Hernandez hopes the bill will wind its way from committee, to the budget committees, and to each chamber.
“But we’re running out of time,” Hernandez said. “So anything can happen.”
Sen. James Manning, D-Eugene, another chief sponsor of the measure, said in an interview he believes a majority of his Senate colleagues support clearing a path to driver’s licenses.
“I think that the majority of my colleagues would support a safety bill like this,” Manning said. “Everyone has their own bills that they’re trying to move forward, so it’s a bit of a little shuffle... But I intend to carry this message through and have one-on-ones with people that have any questions about the bill.”
Manning served in the U.S. Army for 24 years, a tenure that included stints abroad.
During an interview, he held up the driver’s license he obtained while serving in Panama.
“The only thing that this entitled me to or provided for me, was that I understood the rules of the road and I was able to get insurance,” Manning said. “Nothing more, nothing less.”
Manning stresses that the bill is “about safety.”
All people living in the U.S. have to pass tests and get cleared to drive, he said.
“We want to make sure that if you’re here temporarily or long term and you’re going to navigate our roads, we want to make sure that you’re properly licensed,” Manning said. “And again, getting a driver’s license is a privilege, it’s not a right. Because you’re an American citizen, that doesn’t mean you have the right to drive. You have to prove that you qualify to drive.”
Causa, an immigrants’ rights organization, estimates that up to 100,000 people living in Oregon could be eligible.
The measure wouldn’t impact only undocumented immigrants.
Even U.S. citizens who, for whatever reason, may not have access to documents proving their legal presence would be able to get driving privileges by passing the required tests.
That includes people who are homeless and survivors of domestic violence.
Abusive partners can hold vital records hostage or destroy them, according to Jessica Mathis, a housing coordinator for Bradley Angle, a Portland shelter.
“When survivors are unable to drive, they can’t maintain the jobs they need in order to support their families and leave abuse,” Mathis said in written testimony. “Without the ability to go to work, access social services, or take their children to school they often have to return to their abuser. Having to choose between safety and driving illegally is not only bad for these families, but the community. We are all impacted by the increased safety and financial risk of unlicensed and uninsured drivers.”
Between January 2017 and April 2019, the Oregon State Police issued nearly 20,000 citations for driving without a license.
But the state police don’t track immigration status of those cited.
In late 2007, then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat, issued an executive order saying that people applying for drivers licenses, driving permits and ID cards in Oregon had to document their citizenship or that they were in the U.S. legally.
Six years later, lawmakers moved to create a special driver’s card program for undocumented immigrants, but opponents sent the measure to the ballot where voters rejected it.
Supporters of the new bill believe the political environment around immigration has changed in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.
They point to the failure of Measure 105, a 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.
“In the past several years, the context around immigration has changed completely around the country and around our state,” said Iván Hernández, communications manager for Causa. “We saw that with Measure 105…when Oregonians voted overwhelmingly to protect our immigrant neighbors by protecting the state’s anti-discrimination and anti-racial profiling laws and the state sanctuary law.”
The proposal lawmakers are considering now is also different, Iván Hernández said.
Instead of creating a separate system for undocumented immigrants and others who can’t show proof of legal status to get a four-year driver’s card, the bill simply repeals the requirement for documentation of legal residency.
Ivan Hernández says he’s seen strong support for the bill at community forums around the state.
“And these are people who have never been in involved in these sorts of processes before,” Iván Hernández said, “But we all understand how important licenses are to get around, to take our kids to school, to drive to work, to go to the doctor, especially in these rural communities where public transit is either non-existent or not readily available to people, and people have to drive long, long distances to be able to just get by.”
Nearly 300 people submitted written testimony last month.
“I take the bus, or carpool, or ride my bike and have surrendered to a life without driving,” Jocksana, an undocumented woman from Talent said in written testimony. “However, I would like to see young people who do not have documentation have a better option. I would like to see less shame and fear around the simple act of learning how to drive.”
Many opponents were brief, simply asking legislators to vote “no.” Some pointed to the failure of Measure 88 in 2014 as justification.
“The Legislature is attempting an end-around maneuver to circumvent the will of the voters on this issue,” wrote Bob Siegmund of Eugene.
Others objected to the idea in general.
Keith Rosenstrater of Salem urged lawmakers reject the measure because it “legitimizes illegal immigration, devalues citizenship and threatens the sovereignty of our state and nation.”
Reporter Claire Withycombe: [email protected] 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.