When Gov. John Kitzhaber signed legislation this spring allowing illegal immigrants to receive temporary driver cards, opponents promised to take the matter to voters. True to their word, they gathered tens of thousands of signatures, which they delivered last week to the Secretary of State's Office. Assuming about 58,000 of them are valid, Oregonians will settle the issue in November 2014.
The likely battle ahead could end badly for both a good piece of legislation and those it would help, who range from would-be legal drivers to scores of Oregon employers. But forcing a vote also carries a potential benefit: a sweeping expression of public support. At the moment, the driver's card is a privilege granted in controversial fashion by several dozen elected officials in Salem. By the end of 2014, the lawmakers (from both parties) who supported SB 833 may be able to look at the returns and say, "Our constituents agree with us. Told you."
Opponents of the law do have one very powerful argument, which Richard LaMountain, vice president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, articulates in a guest column today. It's Congress' job to create immigration laws, he says, and Oregon's lawmakers have undermined those laws by helping people who've broken them. People who aren't in this country legally shouldn't receive legal sanction to drive.
Of course, the folks in Washington, D.C., have underperformed (to put it politely) in this area of policymaking, creating a contradictory reality. Huge numbers of illegal immigrants live, work and even drive in the United States without any threat of mass deportation. Congress, as always, is working on a better approach. In the meantime, states like Oregon are adopting their own responses to a messy reality.
Oregon's law is a reasonable response to this reality. Like it or not, illegal immigrants play a meaningful role in the state's economy, which is why business groups such as the Oregon Association of Nurseries and Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association supported SB 833. Many of these immigrants also drive. Those who want temporary driver cards will have to master the state's traffic laws and insure their vehicles.
Holders of driver cards may, like some U.S.-born drivers, allow their insurance to lapse before their authorization to drive does. No system's perfect. But the notion that the law is an affront to public safety is a little hard to take seriously given the yawn it received from Oregon State Sheriffs' Association, which took a neutral position during the legislative session and maintains it today.
"We'll let voters make up their minds," said OSSA General Manager Darrell Fuller Monday.
And so, we hope, voters will — guided by pragmatism and a sense of fairness.