SALEM — Oregon on Tuesday took two major steps to help integrate some of the thousands of immigrants living in the state illegally.
Gov. John Kitzhaber signed into law a bill granting resident tuition at public universities for people who can't prove citizenship.
On the same day, eight lawmakers introduced a bill that would make it possible for people living in the state without documentation to obtain driver's licenses valid for four years.
"It's a very good day for all Latinos," said Francisco Lopez, the executive director of CAUSA, an immigrant rights group.
About 12 percent of Oregon's population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, according to the United States Census Bureau. That's about 450,000 people, making it the state's largest minority group.
Kitzhaber was flanked by Latino advocates and other supporters of the resident tuition law as he signed it in his office.
"Each and every Oregonian deserves a shot at the American Dream," Kitzhaber said.
Oregon joins at least 14 other states that offer resident tuition to young immigrants who don't have U.S. citizenship.
"This shows leadership to the nation," said Jaime Limon-Guzman, an activist who has been living without documentation since age 12.
"It's about the future generation of kids," he said.
The driver's license bill was introduced in the Senate with bipartisan support.
"Tuition equity was passed today," said Rep. Jessica Vega Pederson, a Democrat from Portland and a sponsor of the driver's license bill. "Now we're going to focus on the driver's license bill."
Under Oregon law, residents can obtain driver's licenses that are valid for eight years if they prove citizenship or lawful residency. In 2008, the Oregon Legislature tightened its identification requirements to obtain driver's licenses, mandating applicants prove citizenship or lawful residency.
Under Senate Bill 833, immigrants who cannot prove legal residency in the U.S. would be able to obtain four-year driver's licenses or short-term driver's permits. Applicants would have to prove their identities and dates of birth, and that they have lived in Oregon for at least a year. Applicants also would be required to pass the same driver's test citizens must pass to obtain a license.
Supporters of the bill say it would improve safety on Oregon roads, because there would be fewer people driving uninsured and untrained.
"People have to drive to work, to church and to take their kids to school," said Sen. Chuck Thomsen, a Republican from Hood River. "It just makes more sense to do it legally and fully insured, just like everybody else on the street."
But critics say the bill would encourage more people to come to the state illegally, including criminals.
"It's a slap in the face to people who believe in the rule of law," said Jim Ludwick, an outspoken critic of immigrants living in the country illegally.
A task force set up by the governor crafted the bill over two years, working with the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division, Republican and Democratic lawmakers, as well as law enforcement representatives, business groups, the insurance industry, faith communities, farm labor groups and immigrant advocates. The bill's sponsors include two Democrats and two Republicans from each chamber.
Only a handful of states allow immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to obtain driver's licenses. Connecticut and Colorado are considering similar proposals this year.