Next to immigration reform, Latino advocates in Oregon say the second most important issue in their community is undocumented immigrants being allowed to drive legally. Currently they can't, but a new state law—set to take effect in January—would allow it. A group that aims to stop the law from taking hold and refer the question to voters, faces a deadline this Friday.
Oregonians for Immigration Reform—an anti-immigration group—set up shop in a restaurant parking lot in Milwaukie, inviting voters to drive up and sign petitions from their car. They need 58-thousand signatures to stop a law that would allow undocumented immigrants to get a form of driver's license. The law is set to take effect in January. The group's president—Cynthia Kendoll—says granting
driving privileges allows the undocumented to take or keep jobs.
Kendoll: “We have about 180-thousand unemployed Oregonians, so why is our legislature working to help the 120-thousand working illegal aliens. It seems distorted that that's where their focus should be.”
In 2008, the Oregon Legislature passed a law denying licenses to undocumented immigrants. They based it on a federal anti-terrorism law that bans people who are not here legally from boarding a plane. Latino advocates say it quickly became the second most important issue in the Latino community. Take single mother Maria Vargas of Troutdale. She has been stopped three times for driving without
a license and fined a total of $775. She was also speeding. Where was she going?
Vargas: “The first time I was going to the hospital when I paid six hundred. Why? Because I have a bleeding in my stomach.”
Vargas's license expired three years ago, but she drives. This year the legislature reversed itself and voted to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver's cards—similar to licenses but not usable as ID to board planes. Ron Louie, a retired police chief from Hillsboro, says it's naïve to think denying driving privileges will mean that undocumented immigrants will stay home.
Louie: “You think they're going to wake up in the morning and not feed their family? They're gonna wake up in the morning and not try to get to church? They're gonna wake up in the morning and not try to do the things that are their routine or normalcy.”
Louie sees it as a public safety issue. Undocumented residents will have to take written and driving tests to get driver's cards:
Louie: “I want everybody to go through the same skills test, the same minimal language test, the same recognition of the signs, all that. I believe sincerely that that's better than not doing it.”
The new law, if it takes effect, would also stop undocumented Oregonians from going to Washington state to get licenses.
Alicia: “I have friends that have actually been traveling over to Seattle to get documents and then to get their driver's license in Washington, but they reside in Oregon.”
So says Bernice Alicia, a young woman who also hopes to get a driver's card in Oregon. Because Washington grants licenses to undocumented immigrants, some residents near the state line have moved from Oregon to Washington or done things like rent an apartment in Vancouver and then sublet it while residing in Oregon. Cynthia Kendoll, leading the repeal effort, predicts another kind of fraud will occur. She thinks many driver's card holders will not get mandatory insurance,
Kendoll: “Somebody who has broken into our country illegally, is working here illegally, is driving illegally, has probably stolen somebody's identity to be working, why do we think that they're suddenly going to grow halos and buy insurance?”
What would Kendoll say to someone like Maria Vargas, the woman who was stopped on her way to the emergency room with a bleeding ulcer?
Kendoll: “I'm sorry? We're a nation of laws and if we keep making exceptions for people, it undermines the law for everybody.”
Political science Professor Paul Gronke at Reed College senses some support for the repeal effort,
Gronke: “We've had a rough 25 years in this country. Incomes have been flat. There are increasing levels of inequality. A lot of individuals have struggled. And it's not unusual or unexpected for people to look for a target. And one of the targets is these new individuals coming in. They're working. They're doing construction work. Why are those jobs being occupied? Why do I have to push a button on the phone
suddenly whether I want to speak English or Spanish.”
Backers of repeal have until October 4th to turn in signatures and they say their campaign is on target. If they have enough signatures, Oregonians will vote on the issue next November.