This November, Oregonians will vote on Measure 88, a referendum on state law that allows driver cards for Oregonians who can’t prove they’re in the country legally. Supporters say the driver card measure provides people with a basic right to drive. Opponents say it rewards people who aren’t abiding by federal law.
On May Day last year Governor Kitzhaber wielded a pen in front of 2,000 cheering supporters and signed Senate Bill 833 into law.
The bill allows driver cards for those who can’t prove they’re here legally. It passed the 2013 legislature with bipartisan support.
But in the months following that May Day rally, opponents of the bill gathered just enough signatures to put the driver card issue to voters. The Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles estimates that the bill affects tens of thousands of Oregonians who can’t currently drive legally.
That’s why Reyna Lopez is at the Saturday farmers market in Salem with a clipboard in hand. Lopez works for Causa, a statewide advocacy group focused on immigrants rights. She’s leading a group of about 15 volunteers canvassing the city to encourage yes votes on Measure 88.
Lopez introduces herself to a woman who is on her way out of the market. A tiny, sleeping baby is strapped to the young mother’s chest, and she’s carrying two pints of bright strawberries.
“Hello,” says Lopez, cheerfully. “Today we’re talking to folks about Measure 88. Have you heard about it at all?
The woman says she doesn’t think so.
“Basically it’s a big human rights issue that’s going to be on the ballot this year,” says Lopez. She describes the measure as a way for people in the immigrant community to be able to drive legally to their jobs or to school.
The woman says she’s supportive and signs a pledge to vote yes while Lopez holds her strawberries for her.
“For me, it’s really about dignity and respect,” says Lopez. “For many families this is a constant worry on their minds. When they’re driving, they’re driving in fear. I just want to make sure that people are able to get where they need to go legally and safely, but also I just want to make sure that people have their basic transportation needs fulfilled.”
Driver cards won’t come with the same privileges as a state-issued driver’s license. It’s not meant to be an official ID, but solely to grant driving privileges. To get the card, drivers must pass the state test and provide proof of vehicle insurance.
Across town in Salem, Cynthia Kendoll is leading a meeting of the group Oregonians For Immigration Reform. The conference room is packed with opponents of the driver card law. She leads the crowd in a chant: “Vote no on 88!”
Kendoll says driver cards would roll out the welcome mat to undocumented workers.
“They chose to break our laws and come here illegally,” says Kendoll. “So when you paint the picture that they’re just coming here to work, they’re also breaking multiple laws. They’re also probably driving, and probably driving uninsured.”
The meeting became momentarily heated when a protester stood up to make a statement during a question-and-answer session.
“I’m an American, too,” said the protester, who spoke with an accent and added that he was an American citizen. Several people in the room shouted at him to leave, and he agreed to go. But as he walked out of the room, he turned back to the crowd and said, “You’re telling me that I’m the other.”
The meeting discussion following the tense exchange wasn’t so much about Measure 88 or whether undocumented people should be able to drive. Rather it was about the broader issue of immigration reform. And that’s really at the heart of this debate for opponents.
“The problem that we have to solve is illegal immigration,” says Kendoll. “Rewarding people that break the law by giving them a drivers card — we think it’s just wrong.”
Supporters of the driver card law say that it’s not up to states to enforce federal immigration law. Everyone needs a safe way to get to work or to school, says Reyna Lopez.
“People are driving; they’re taking the risk,” says Lopez. “The rest of the community is being put at risk when uninsured and unlicensed drivers are on the roads. Whether you’re pro-immigrant or not, it’s about public safety, it’s about safe roads.”
A yes vote on the referendum would uphold state law. A no vote would reverse the driver card law. If Measure 88 passes, Oregon will be the eleventh state in the nation to provide driving privileges to undocumented residents.