Ore. advances bill allowing undocumented immigrants to drive

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Undocumented immigrants may soon be able to drive in Oregon after the House voted 39-21 Tuesday to remove proof of legal status as a requirement for obtaining a driver's license.

The measure, known as the Equal Access to Roads Act, would expand driving privileges to all Oregon residents regardless of their immigration status. Applicants would still have to show they live in Oregon and pass the driver's test to get a license.

Supporters said the move would make roads safer and lead to less hit-and-run accidents and encourage more drivers to purchase auto insurance. Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, a Democrat from Woodburn, said that many undocumented immigrants without licenses can't find work and are barred from doing "everyday activities" out of fear that they would be deported over a traffic stop.

"Not having a driver's licenses means that people cannot take themselves or their kids to the doctor's office or get the medication they need at the pharmacy," she said. "Imagine the pain and frustration that parents must feel when they can't do that simple task, a simple task like going to the grocery store."

The plan still needs Senate approval but, if passed, Oregon would join over a dozen other states and the District of Columbia in allowing undocumented immigrants to drive. This week, New York became the 13th state to approve such a measure. New Jersey is also considering the idea.

The move comes as Oregon prepares to implement the 2005 federal Real ID Act, completely overhauling the state's identification system. Beginning in July 2020, in addition to standard driver's licenses, Oregon will begin formally rolling out new security-enhanced identification cards that will be necessary to enter federal buildings and board a domestic flight without a passport.

Supporters of the Oregon bill say that legal status shouldn't be a requirement for standard licenses, which are considered "non-compliant" with new federal regulations.

Proof of legal status is required for Real IDs, and the Department of Homeland Security has ruled that it would allow states to issue non-compliant driver's licenses to applicants for whom "lawful presence is not determined."

Licenses for undocumented immigrants isn't a new concept for Oregon. For years, the state was only one of eight in the nation to grant licenses to those who couldn't prove legal status. Lawmakers initially reversed the practice in 2008 to comply with federal ID laws, then backtracked and voted to reinstate licenses for undocumented immigrants in 2013.

But that 2013 law never took effect, because opponents were able to put the issue to the ballot. Oregon voters overwhelmingly repealed the measure 66% to 34%.

Repealing the bill this time will be much harder thanks to the measure's emergency clause that would make the measure immediately law upon passage, something Republicans opposed.

"Let's keep our system of documentation honest, real and responsive to the wishes of the people," said Rep. Mike Nearman, a Republican from Independence. "Let's continue to insist that we only issue documentation to people that are in the country legally."