Tens of thousands of immigrants living in Oregon without legal permission will be able to get four-year driver’s licenses starting Jan. 1 under a bill given final legislative approval by the House on Tuesday.
The House passed the measure in a 38-20 vote following more than an hour of debate. Gov. John Kitzhaber said he will sign it on Wednesday.
Supporters say the proposal will improve public safety because more drivers would be trained and insured. Opponents say the licensing program grants privileges to people who are breaking the law and will encourage illegal immigration.
“We are rewarding bad behavior,” said Republican Rep. Sal Esquivel, who voted against the bill. Esquivel said in testimony that the legislation angered members of his family who had immigrated legally to the U.S.
Immigrants and others who don’t have documents proving they are in the country lawfully, including elderly and homeless people, could apply for the driver’s licenses if they’ve lived in Oregon for at least a year and meet other requirements.
The license would be valid for four years – half as long as a standard Oregon license – and could be used only for driving privileges. It cannot be used to vote, board a plane or purchase a firearm. The restricted driver’s licenses would be marked “Driver’s Card” to distinguish it from a standard Oregon license.
Supporters made the point that the measure is intended to make Oregon’s roads safer, not to address immigration problems.
“When we have uninsured, untested drivers, there’s a cost to society,” said Democratic Rep. Jessica Vega Pederson, a sponsor of the bill. Vega Pederson said the state’s insurance premiums would go down as a result of having fewer uninsured drivers on the road.
In Oregon, a person cannot purchase insurance without a driver’s license. The measure, however, does not require driver’s card recipients to buy insurance.
The bill was crafted over the course of two years by a governor-appointed task force that knit together a strategic alliance among Republican and Democratic lawmakers and interest groups representing law enforcement, agriculture and insurance companies.
The bill was a hard call for several lawmakers, including Republican Rep. Dennis Richardson, who emailed a survey to his constituents for feedback. His final decision to oppose the bill was based in part on the responses he received.
Republican Rep. Vic Gilliam, who acknowledged this as a tough political vote, said he supported the legislation because it addresses the reality that there are thousands of immigrants living and working in the state without legal permission.
“It does encourage a way into the daylight for honest workers, for safer highways. And, in my view, it leverages some of the good guys to get better,” Gilliam said.
The licensing program, which would begin Jan. 1, 2014, is expected to pay for itself with fees charged for the cards. A driver’s card would cost $64 and $44 to renew. A standard Oregon driver’s license costs $60 and $40 to renew.
Officials from the Oregon Department of Transportation said they expect as many as 84,000 people to apply for the new driver’s licenses during the first nine months and thousands more will likely follow. The initial flood of anticipated applicants includes people who lost their licenses or let them expire because of a 2008 law that required driver’s license applicants to prove U.S. citizenship or lawful residency.
A handful of other states from Colorado to Connecticut are considering similar proposals this year.
New Mexico, Illinois and Washington allow driver’s licenses for those illegally in the country. Utah grants immigrants a driving permit that can’t be used for identification.