Senate passes immigrant driver's license bill

Of the Associated Press

SALEM — The Oregon Senate approved a proposal on Tuesday to grant short-term driver's licenses to people living in the country illegally — a turnaround from five years ago when the Legislature passed a law requiring proof of citizenship or lawful residency to obtain the document.

The Senate approved the bill on a 20-7 vote with little discussion. It now goes to the House, where a vote is expected by the end of the week.

“It is not a perfect solution,” said Sen. Chuck Thomsen, a Hood River Republican and a sponsor of the bill. “But in light of the federal government's inactivity on this subject, it is needed as a stop-gap measure.”

Supporters say the licensing program will improve public safety, because more drivers would be trained and insured.

U.S. lawmakers unveiled a sweeping immigration bill last week that would, among other things, put an estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally on a path to citizenship if certain border security goals are met.

Under Oregon's bill, immigrants, among others, who have lived in Oregon for at least a year and meet other requirements, could apply for driver's licenses without proving legal presence.

The card would be valid only for four years — half as long as a standard Oregon license — and could be used only for driving privileges. The card could not be used to vote, board a plane or purchase a firearm, for example.

Homeless people, elderly people or veterans, among others who have lost or never had a birth certificate, would also qualify for a driver's card under the bill.

The bill would partially ease the 2008 law that required driver's license applicants to prove they are citizens or lawful residents of the U.S.

“The law that we passed previously didn't really take anybody off the road, it just put more uninsured drivers on the road,” said Sen. Lee Beyer, a Eugene Democrat and supporter of the bill.

The bill sparked controversy at a lengthy public hearing earlier this month. Lawmakers heard from people who said they feared the proposal will create a culture of crime in the state, drawing drug traffickers and other criminals to Oregon.

The bill was designed over the course of two years to gather support from both political parties and various interest groups. It was crafted by a governor-appointed task force that knit together a strategic alliance among Republican and Democratic lawmakers and interest groups representing law enforcement, agriculture and insurance companies.

Officials from the Oregon Department of Transportation said they expect as many as 84,000 people to apply for the new driver's licenses during the first nine months of the program, if the legislation is passed. The licensing program would begin Jan. 1, 2014.

Oregon is one of several states, including Colorado and Maryland, considering proposals to grant driver's licenses to people who cannot prove they are legally in the United States.

Illinois, New Mexico, Washington and Utah grant driver's licenses to those living in the country illegally.

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