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Oregon Could Be the Next State to Let Undocumented Immigrants Get Licenses

Oregonians will decide in November whether they want to join the 10 states that already issue a driver's card or license to undocumented immigrants.

ELECTION 2014: This article is part of our coverage of ballot measures to watch.

Oregon voters will decide in November whether they want to join 10 states that issue government-issued driver’s licenses or cards to undocumented immigrants.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber signed a bill into law last year that would have made four-year driver cards available to residents, regardless of their immigration status. The cards would look slightly different from state driver's licenses and couldn’t be used to access other state or federal government benefits. A petition-gathering effort suspended the law and placed it on the ballot (as Measure 88).

Supporters of the law say the cards would be a boon to public safety by making sure that undocumented immigrants who get behind the wheel have passed a driving test and know the rules of the road. They also assert that if undocumented immigrants possess driver cards, they're more likely to buy liability insurance.

Opponents of the law, including a political action committee representing Oregon sheriffs, say the cards would encourage illegal immigration and would not improve safety. “We don’t like the law and we think citizens should have a chance to vote on it," said Jim Ludwick, a spokesman for Oregonians for Immigration Reform.

About 67 percent of likely voters in Oregon said they would be voting against the driver card measure in an August poll by NW Market Research. The results offer a grim outlook for Measure 88.

The Taxpayer Association of Oregon, an anti-tax, pro-limited government group, paid for the poll and argued that its results should give pause to elected officials in other states that are considering drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Respondents in the poll's sample may have been reacting in part to the ballot title language, a point of contention between advocates and critics of Measure 88. House Democrats passed a bill earlier in the year that sought to revise the title to exclude the phrase "without requiring proof of legal residence in the United States," but the effort stalled in the state Senate.

"I fear that all of the publicity about the national issue and the problems on our border will skew people’s opinion on this," said Oregon Rep. Vic Gilliam, a sponsor of the bill now being put to a vote.

The Oregon legislature passed its driver card bill at the same time that states across the country considered a range of policies designed to help undocumented immigrants. Since 2013, lawmakers in Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota and New Jersey have decided to extend in-state college tuition to young undocumented immigrants. This year, Washington state made state education grants and scholarships available to undocumented immigrants. 

Immigrant and longtime U.S. resident Rosalva Mireles, left, being photographed and processed for her permanent driver's license in Colorado. (AP/Brennan Linsley)

Following President Barack Obama's executive order to give temporary legal status to certain young undocumented immigrants under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, at least 45 states determined that the DACA immigrants could also receive driver's licenses.

Much of the state legislative action happened parallel to efforts in the U.S. Senate to combine tighter border security measures with a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. Many state lawmakers argued that their proposals would serve as intermediate solutions until Congress passes a comprehensive immigration law.

While Oregon is the only state with a referendum in November dealing with immigrant driving privileges, the issue is likely to play a role in other elections. Gilliam pointed out that his own primary, and a few others in Oregon, became extensions of the Measure 88 debate. Similarly, Colorado's immigrant driver's license law invited recent criticism in the re-election bid of Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Colorado began offering special driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants this year, but the program has come under fire by Latino activists who say there are too few licensing locations. If Hickenlooper does not expand the licensing program, they say they'll drop their support for his re-election campaign. Though Latinos represent a small slice of the Colorado electorate -- about 13 percent of registered voters -- recent polling shows the governor's race to be close, and without their backing, Hickenlooper could lose.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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