According to a recent survey, voters in Oregon appear poised to roll back legislation that would have given the state's illegal immigrants the opportunity to obtain "driver cards" (a form driver's license permitted by federal law but not acceptable for federal purposes, such as boarding an airplane). Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber (D), signed the bill into law in May 2013, but a group called Oregonians for Immigration Reform of McMinnville (a town in the heart of the Willamette Valley wine country) gathered more than 70,000 signatures in just a few months to freeze the law pending a referendum to be held on Election Day this year.
The survey, conducted for Oregon Public Broadcasting, revealed that Oregon voters disapprove of Ballot Measure 88, which would permit Oregon DMVs to issue driver's licenses to residents with no proof of legal residence, by nearly 2-1. (60 percent against; 31 percent in favor)
The poll is noteworthy for a few reasons. Oregon is a blue state. President Obama carried it by 12 points in 2012. The bill sailed through the Oregon legislature last year with bipartisan support — the vote was 47-7 in the House and 20-7 in the Senate. And many nearby states — California, Washington, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico — already grant some form of driver's licenses to illegal immigrants who qualify for them. But Oregonians, concerned that the measure would attract more illegal immigrants to the state, have said "not so fast". (Oregon has approximately 160,000 to 170,000 illegal immigrants, or about 4 percent of the state's total population.)
The Register Guard, a daily newspaper in Eugene, ran a lengthy story about the campaign on Saturday, along with a chart detailing spending to date. While neither side is particularly well funded, it's interesting to note that the "yes" camp (those who favor the driver's licences) has outraised and outspent the naysayers by more than 10-1. (The "yes" side raised $421,000 and has spent $273,000; the "no" side raised just $37,000 and has spent $26,000.) Nearly all of the top donors for the "yes" campaign are labor unions.
The disconnect between what politicians and labor unions apparently want and what the public thinks is a good idea is startling, and it shows how out of step elected leaders and union officials are with their constituents. Voters are deeply skeptical of measures providing any sort of benefits to illegal immigrants for good reason. In the United States, where a huge majority of citizens do not own a passport, a driver's license provides de-facto legitimacy and enables migrants to, as NumbersUSA neatly summarized, "rent apartments and cars, open bank accounts, cash checks, enter secure buildings, buy guns, and board commercial aircraft, among other things."
It also sends a mixed signal to illegal immigrants, many of whom aren't fluent English speakers and don't understand all of the nuances of our political system. If the state takes their photo and hands them an official looking card, that gives them a feeling of legitimacy and no doubt confirms their impression that the United States isn't serious about enforcing immigration law.
Oregon allowed applicants to obtain driver's licenses without proof of legal status prior to changing the law in 2008. So why change it back again now? I've read all the arguments for and against Ballot Measure 88, and I've yet to see anyone demonstrate that changing the law to deny illegal immigrants driver's licenses in 2008 has had any detrimental effect on public safety.
In fact, if you look at Oregon's annual "Traffic Crash Summaries", put out by the Oregon Department of Transportation, it appears as though traffic fatalities have declined since 2008. From 2003 to 2007, traffic deaths ranged from 455-512; whereas from 2008 to 2012, the figures ranged from 317 to 416. And this is during a time when the state's population increased substantially.
The truth is that there is no effective way to make sure that illegal immigrants maintain auto insurance, which is costly and generally a low priority for people who are barely scraping by. Oregon voters have an opportunity to send a resounding message, not just to their own politicians, but also to elected representatives all over the country.