Gov. Ted Kulongoski's support for giving illegal immigrants a special driver's permit has divided local legislators, the latest demonstration of the ideological split on immigration issues among moderate and left-leaning Democrats.
"I have a real problem licensing illegal immigrants," said state Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland. "It would lead to one problem after another."
Giving the state's estimated 120,000 undocumented immigrants so-called "driving-only" cards could actually backfire by increasing illegal migration to the Beaver State, all at taxpayers' expense, said Bates, a self-described moderate, in a telephone interview.
Rather than "encouraging illegals" to come to the state with promises of a state-issued driver's card, Bates said the policymakers should be actively encouraging legal immigration to which the construction and hospitality industries rely upon for workers.
"We need a lot more legals in the country," Bates said. "We need the labor; we need the good people."
The Democratic governor's plan would require proof of citizenship or legal residency for driver's licenses. Those who lack proper papers could get a driving-only card that would not be valid to board an airliner, for instance.
House Majority Whip Peter Buckley, an unabashed Ashland liberal, said while he understands some of the concerns brought forth by critics, anti-immigrant sentiment is fueling most of the opposition to the governor's plan.
Buckley, however, agreed with Bates that the federal government needs "to try to control our borders better," but said "fear around this issue is out of balance."
He pointed to a proposed ballot initiative that would require proof of citizenship to drive and vote, and would repeal a state law that prohibits law enforcement agencies from using money or personnel to find or apprehend illegal immigrants whose only crime is that they are in the U.S. illegally.
"I have a lot of concern about the anti-immigrant fever that is gripping people right now," Buckley said. "It's hard for me to look at people who are desperately trying to feed their kids and have a better life, and condemn them."
To get the initiative, dubbed the Respect for Law Act, on the November 2008 ballot, backers will have until July — to gather about 83,000 valid signatures.
Like Bates, state Rep. Sal Esquivel, the only Hispanic member of the state Legislature, wants driving eligibility tied to immigration status. Oregon currently is just one of seven states that do not require proof of citizenship or legal residence before someone can get a driver's license.
"Why would we want to reward them for coming here illegally?" asked Esquivel, R-Medford. "My papa came here legally and it took him a long time to become a citizen, but he came here legally."
During the regular 2007 legislative session, state lawmakers couldn't agree on a bill to bring Oregon's driver's licenses under the new federal standard amid concerns over cost and privacy.
Inching the state toward compliance, the governor on Friday issued an executive order that could toughen identification requirements when applying for an Oregon driver's license.
To get a license, applicants would have to provide the Department of Motor Vehicles a valid Social Security number or show that they are in the country legally, under rules that still must be drafted and approved by the Oregon Transportation Commission.
Immigrant rights groups decried the governor's move, which could take consulate-issued ID cards and foreign birth certificates off the list of approved identification accepted when applying for a driver's license.
If adopted, the new rules would prevent undocumented immigrants from taking driver's education classes or getting insurance once they're licensed, opponents said.
"This executive order puts the public safety of all Oregonians in jeopardy," said Aeryca Steinbauer, the statewide coordinator of CAUSA &
a local immigrant rights coalition.
She added that there "is a lot of fear and concern" among the illegal immigrant community because "people need to be able to drive" to do such basic things as drive to and from work and to the grocery store.
Esquivel said he has just one question: "What makes people believe that if we give them a license they are going to run down and get insurance?"
covers the state Legislature for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at email@example.com.
Legislators oppose licenses for 'illegals'