Andrew Theen

The Oregonian

Oregon moved one step closer to allowing immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to obtain legal driver’s licenses for the first time in more than a decade.

The House approved House Bill 2015 on largely bipartisan lines on Tuesday, with two Republicans supporting the measure and one Democrat opposing it. It now heads to the Senate.

The Equal Access to Roads Act amends state law and removes the requirement that potential drivers prove U.S. citizenship or legal residency to receive a state license.

Motorists would still be required to pass a driver’s test and prove they live in Oregon. Advocates have said the bill would benefit more segments of the population than immigrants, saying domestic violence survivors and the elderly and other residents who have trouble accessing citizenship paperwork would also benefit.

Oregon previously issued eight-year driver’s licenses without requiring applicants produce documentation proving they are citizens or legal residents. The last of those licenses expired in 2016.

The House passed the bill after occasionally emotional testimony from some lawmakers. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, said Oregon would join 14 other states and Washington, D.C., in allowing immigrants in the U.S. to legally drive. Hernandez, one of the bill’s chief sponsors, said the bill had broad support from groups including the state’s nursery association, the Oregon Farm Bureau, the restaurant industry and League of Women Voters, along with more than 100 other organizations.

Supporters also tout the bill as a public safety issue.

Hernandez cited other states, such as Connecticut, that have seen traffic accidents such as hit and runs decline and the number of insured drivers rise as immigrants obtained legal licenses in that state.

Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, D-Woodburn, said one person not being able to legally drive could pose a ripple effect. It can lead small businesses to shutter because people can’t drive to work, she said. Parents who can’t legally drive also can’t get as involved as volunteers or be as present for their children.

“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 to buy baby formula, diapers, over-the-counter medication,” Leon said.

Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, one of two Republicans to support the bill, said she was disappointed in President Donald Trump for not finding a way to create a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

“These immigrants have contributed — and continue to contribute — to the well-being and progress of our American society, but currently, they are faced with the difficult decision of choosing to take their kids to school and breaking the law,” Helt said.

Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, opposed the bill. Rep. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville, was the other Republican to support it.

If the Senate approves the bill, Oregon residents in the U.S. illegally could also obtain legal identification cards and learner’s permits. The changes won’t apply to commercial driver’s licenses.

Hernandez stressed that the bill complied with the federally-required 2005 Real ID Act. Oregon in July 2020 will finally comply with that federal statute, which stipulates states must verify citizenship and add other security features for state licenses. Either a federally recognized form of identification like a passport or Real ID card will be required for any passenger to board domestic flights starting in October 2020.

In 2013, the Legislature approved a bill that would’ve granted special four-year driver’s cards to residents in the U.S. illegally. The following year, voters overwhelmingly overturned that law.

Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, cited that ballot history Tuesday. Post read the ballot results from every county and introduced a motion to refer the bill to the Rules Committee and refer the motion to voters in November 2020.

Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence, also testified against the bill, saying Oregon needed to think of the implications of issuing legal driver’s licenses to noncitizens. “Let’s continue to insist that we only issue documentation to people that are in the country legally,” he said.

Post’s motion failed.

Hernandez said his bill was a “completely different policy” from the one voters’ overturned in 2014, and he intimated that the electorate would back the plan.

He said Oregonians in November overwhelmingly rejected Measure 105, which called for revoking the state’s sanctuary law.