A driver's licensing program for illegal immigrants that passed the Oregon House of Representatives Tuesday would have been a welcome gift for Luis Ayala of Medford — if it had come a couple of years ago.
Ayala has to walk, take buses and grab rides with friends, but will finally get his license and a small, inexpensive car when he turns 18 in July. At the same time, he will be preparing to start his studies at Southern Oregon University's Honors College.
A perfect 4.0 student at South Medford High School, he was awarded a full-ride scholarship by SOU. He plans on a medical career and hopes to become an optometrist.
"It's hard for me to get places. I have to ask for rides. I walk a mile to school. I'm too close for the school bus," Ayala said Tuesday, following a driving lesson with his cousin. "It's unfair. A license is a right in this country. It's like something was taken away from me. I felt less than others."
Ayala came to America in the sixth grade and, he said, was determined to excel in school, make friends, volunteer and master English in two years. He accomplished all those goals.
"I came here for self-improvement," he said. "I didn't have many friends. I put so much effort into the language and school. I mentored and tutored language at Kids Unlimited.
"We come to this country to work and get better schooling, not to make problems — and we need to drive to have a better life."
Ayala will be able to get a driver's license this summer, a half-year before the new driver's cards will be available, because he was accepted into a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federally authorized pathway to work permits and driving for children of illegal aliens.
The driver's card bill, which earlier passed the Senate and on Tuesday passed the House, 38-20, is expected to be signed by Gov. John Kitzhaber. It grants driving rights for four years for a fee of $64. Supporters from both parties say it will make streets safer because applicants have to learn the rules of the road and pass a driving test — and the card makes it possible for them to get insurance.
Opponents have said the bill provides a benefit that should be available only to those in the country legally and ignores the immigrants' law-breaking.
The law will take effect Jan. 1, 2014, opening the way for up to an estimated 110,000 unlicensed drivers to get cards in the first 18 months. Those applying must have proof of residency and have lived here for a year.
The card cannot be used to register to vote, board a plane or purchase a firearm. The restricted driver's license would be marked "Driver's Card" to distinguish it from a standard Oregon license.
The driver's card will guarantee more drivers on the road are trained and insured, said Medford State Farm agent Oscar Rodriguez, a 26-year legal immigrant.
"That's the big issue, rather than who's a legal immigrant," he said. "They have to make sure and pass the tests so they're going to have to learn to drive properly."
The bill wipes out the 2008 state rule requiring proof of legal residency in the country for a driver's license, an act that made it difficult for many immigrant families to get to work, school or shopping, said Dagoberto Morales of Unete Center for Farmworker Advocacy in Medford.
"This is a big relief for everyone," said Morales. "We'll be able to get to work and take the children to school. It will be big revenue for the state. People have been driving in fear, afraid to lose their car if they're driving without a license. ... Now, they'll be able to feel more secure and comfortable. It's a really good thing for people."
His wife, Kathy Keesee, a Unete worker, said the 2008 law caused "a lot of suffering," including deportations. Previously licensed illegal immigrants could not renew or replace an expired or lost license under the law, she said, and some were sold fraudulent insurance.
"Now, hopefully, all this is going to change," she said.
Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau said illegal immigrants without licenses will continue to be cited if stopped by police until they get driver's cards in January. Police do not check drivers for immigration status during traffic stops, he added.
All opposing votes on the bill in both chambers were Republicans, though several supported it.
"It's the right thing to do," said Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland. "It makes sure everyone on the road in Oregon is licensed, insured and driving legally. It's been fascinating to see the change of opinion in Oregon, where agricultural interests say they need these people here and they need them driving safely."
The son of legal immigrants, Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, opposed the bill.
"They broke the law getting in the country, broke the law working, broke the law driving and broke the law by being uninsured. ... I don't see where the card makes them buy insurance. Let's face the facts. They're not going to buy it."
After polling constituents online, Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, said he found himself torn.
"The issue is: Are we promoting illegal action for people who are already breaking the law? It's not a black-and-white world anymore. You're dealing with real people with real families, but if they crash (under present law), they're off the hook and our premiums go up."
When driver's cards were made legal in Utah and New Mexico, they chopped uninsured driving by one-half and two-thirds, respectively, according to Richardson's online message.
Richardson voted against the measure.
Most of the new revenue from driver's cards — $4.7 million — will go toward hiring six full-time workers and 58 temporary workers to handle applications in the first 18 months.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.