Oregon Lawmakers Nervously Eye a Repeat of Bitter Battle Over Driver’s Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants

The state’s estimated 100,000 undocumented immigrants are not allowed to drive legally.

BILL OF THE WEEK: House Bill 2015

CHIEF SPONSOR: Rep. Diego Hernandez (D-Portland), joined by numerous co-sponsors.

WHAT PROBLEM IT SEEKS TO SOLVE: A lack of basic mobility for undocumented immigrants. Until 2008, undocumented immigrants in Oregon could obtain driver's licenses without proof of citizenship. Lawmakers toughened the standard that year, in response to federal requirements. In 2013, lawmakers relaxed the law, again allowing licensure without proof of residency. But an anti-immigration group sent the law to voters with a ballot measure—and Oregonians resoundingly rejected the new licenses by 66 to 34 percent. Advocates say that means the state's estimated 100,000 undocumented immigrants are not allowed to drive legally.

WHAT IT WOULD DO: Change requirements so driver's licenses could be obtained without proof of citizenship or legal presence. The licenses could not be used commercially, nor would they qualify under the Real ID Act, the federal security law that goes into effect in Oregon next year and will require higher levels of documentation for citizens and legal residents to obtain driver's licenses.

WHO SUPPORTS IT: HB 2015 is one of those rare pieces of legislation that unites left and right—well, some of the right. It is a top priority for immigrants' rights groups such as Causa Oregon, the farmworkers' union PCUN, and business groups such as the Oregon Association of Nurseries and the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association that typically lean right but are short of labor. Add in public employee unions and you have a can't-miss bill—except it hasn't come up for a House floor vote yet, let alone made it to the more conservative Senate chamber.
Part of that sluggish pace may stem from Democrats' fear that voters still harbor the racial animus that drove the 2014 ballot defeat. But those same Oregon voters in 2018 handily rejected Measure 105, which would have ended the state's sanctuary policy for immigrants. "We thought it was going to get done early," says Reyna Lopez, PCUN's executive director. "After the elections last year and the defeat of Measure 105, we had momentum behind us." House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) says she's confident the bill will move. "I look forward to soon voting yes on House Bill 2015," Kotek said in a statement. "Requiring all drivers to have a license will make our roads and communities safer for everyone."

WHO OPPOSES IT: In committee testimony, both Democrats and Republicans reported hearing from constituents that voters will want a say in the matter. The primary institutional opposition comes from Oregonians for Immigration Reform, which for nearly 20 years has been the state's loudest opponent of immigration. The group hints that if lawmakers pass HB 2015, they will face the same ballot battle as before. "The idea that providing a driver license to a person that is in the country illegally is just as repulsive to voters today as it was in 2014," says Cynthia Kendoll, OFIR's president. "Kill this bad bill."

Clarification: This story originally said HB 2015 created a new class of driver's licenses. Instead, it changes the requirements for obtaining a Class C license.

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