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Oregon Will Make Undocumented People Eligible for Drivers' Licenses Again

Thirteen other states and Washington, D.C., allow those in the country illegally to get licenses.
Immigrant Drivers

Oregon lawmakers have voted to grant the state's undocumented residents drivers' licenses, amid a nationwide push to do so in response to data indicating that minor traffic violations are landing immigrants in deportation proceedings.

State senators voted 17–10 on Saturday to pass a bill granting licenses to all Oregon residents, regardless of citizenship status, which "eliminates [the] requirement that [a] person provide proof of legal presence before Department of Transportation issues [a] noncommercial driver license, noncommercial driver permit or identification card." The bill overrides a 2007 executive order issued by former Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski stopping the state from granting licenses to undocumented people and stripping the licenses of 80,000 undocumented Oregon residents, according to advocates.

Governor Kate Brown's signature on the bill will make Oregon the latest in a recent spate of states to have enacted such legislation. Altogether, 13 states—including California, Colorado, and Connecticut—and the District of Columbia allow non-citizens to obtain drivers' licenses. New York was the latest state to legalize driving for undocumented immigrants last month.

"The ability to drive legally is a core everyday need for many Oregon families," says Ricardo Lujan-Valerio, policy associate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. "Oregonians shouldn't have to live in fear of being deported or worry about their families being torn apart simply because they are taking their kids to school, going to work, or taking care of their family or neighbors."

Immigrant rights advocates have long advocated for non-citizens to be able to obtain driver's licenses, but the number of state lawmakers pushing to secure licenses for undocumented people has increased in recent years. The National Conference of State Legislatures, an organization advocating for the interests of state lawmakers, reported last month that legislators in at least eight states had introduced bills this year that would grant immigrants access to drivers' licenses.

The nationwide push to grant undocumented people drivers' licenses comes amid signs that traffic infractions are resulting in non-citizens being detained by immigration authorities for potential deportation. "Being unable to produce a driver's license during a traffic stop is increasingly leading immigrants, who otherwise have no criminal records, to be flagged for deportation," says Iván Hernandez, spokesman for Causa Oregon, an immigrant rights organization.

Nationwide, deportations resulting from traffic violations have increased 138 percent from 2016 to 2017 to a total of 2,364, according to Syracuse University non-profit data research center Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. In 2017, "general traffic offenses" topped the list of charges faced by ICE arrestees—17 percent of all charges at 24,438—more than possession and the sale of drugs and far outnumbering violent crimes like homicide and sexual assault, according to a Pew Research report.

Despite the increased urgency of garnering licenses for immigrants under a Trump administration perennially calling to ramp up deportations, advocates say that the passage of House Bill 2015 is the result of years of activism. The local ACLU chapter helped to draft the legislation, and Lujan-Valerio credits its passage to the "broad, grassroots effort" of immigrant rights groups Causa Oregon and Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN).

"I have been advocating to return licenses to undocumented Oregonian's for 10 years now," says PCUN director Reyna Lopez. "People didn't disappear [when Kulongoski's executive order blocked licenses for undocumented people], they have families, and are essential in Oregon's economy. Instead, people had to make hard choices. Like whether to drive without a license, or make their 16-year-old kids grow up faster and become the heads of the house."

Oregon's passage of legislation to officially return driving rights to undocumented Oregonians may also serve more broadly as a message to the Trump administration.

"This is a big win for the immigrant rights movement, and for Oregonians," Lopez says. "I think it sends a strong message. The message is that immigrants are welcome here, and we refuse to buy into the hate speech the president is spewing. It also is a good step in acknowledging that we need to be able to transport ourselves legally and safely, and that we need a national solution to the broken immigration system."

Several of the legislators who voted against the bill did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.