Oregon legislators have traditionally been wary about overriding the will of the voters. But lawmakers may upend that custom this year on the controversial topic of immigration.
A bill backed by Gov. Kate Brown and a majority of the Democrat-dominated House would allow undocumented immigrants the ability to obtain driver’s licenses. This comes just five years after a solid majority of Oregon voters rejected a ballot measure that would have done something similar.
Legislators looking to reverse the judgment of voters aren’t always obligated to go back to them, and that’s the case with the driver’s license bill. But they’ve typically given voters a say.
One of the best-known examples came in the debate over Oregon’s pioneering law allowing physicians to write lethal prescriptions for a small percentage of terminally ill patients. Voters narrowly approved the practice in 1994. Legislators who had qualms put the issue back on the ballot in 1997 – and voters reaffirmed their support by an even stronger majority.
Portland attorney Greg Chaimov, a former chief counsel for the Legislature, says lawmakers have frequently gone back to voters to ask for a second opinion on issues ranging from property rights to hunting cougars. Sometimes, they’ve rewritten parts of a ballot measure they think are flawed.
But lawmakers going beyond that is unusual.
“I can’t think of a situation where you had what one would consider to be a 180-degree reversal in policy where legislators didn’t take the issue back to voters,” he said.
That issue of whether to go back to voters came up often at a recent hearing on the driver’s license measure, House Bill 2015. Opponents repeatedly criticized legislators for even thinking about approving the bill so soon after Measure 88, the 2014 ballot fight over whether to allow undocumented immigrants to have driver’s cards.
Supporters countered that voter sentiment in Oregon has shifted since 2014 — and since the last presidential election.
“I believe that there’s a big cultural shift with immigration due to the Trump administration and the handling of refugees and asylum seekers,” said Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, one of the bill’s sponsors.
“And also the way that we’ve treated families and separating children, I think that has exposed people, the American public, mainstream society to the realities that immigrants face back home.”
Kay Bridges, a Washington County resident opposing the bill, acknowledged the hardships raised by immigrants and their advocates. In testimony, they told stories of how the lack of a driver’s license prevented undocumented immigrants from finding jobs and providing for their families.
“There’s a lot of heartfelt stories here and a lot of gut-wrenching,” Bridges said. “But besides that, the real issue is we were here once before. And as it has been stated a couple of times, 66% of the people in Oregon voted to not do this.”
Jim Ludwick, a board member for the advocacy group Oregonians for Immigration Reform, said that if legislators feel the public mood has changed, “they should put their money where their mouth is” and put the issue of who can legally drive back on the ballot.
Oregonians for Immigration Reform backed the 2014 measure and has pushed for tighter immigration laws. The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled Oregonians for Immigration Reform a hate group, a designation Ludwick and other leaders of his group say isn’t accurate or fair.
Hernandez, the Portland legislator who introduced HB 2015, said he anticipated the opposition would make the argument that the legislation essentially big-foots voters. He said opponents of more open immigration policies said similar things last year when the Oregon Legislature passed a bill that extended the term limit on driver’s licenses for recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
But he disagrees with their interpretation.
“These are two completely different policies,” Hernandez said of the 2014 referendum and the current legislation.
Ballot Measure 88 would have introduced driver’s cards for undocumented individuals, in the process allowing anyone to distinguish between who is and isn’t documented.
Now the state is already developing two kinds of licenses: one that meets the federal government’s new “Real ID” standards and another that doesn’t have as stringent requirements.
The Real ID license would be needed to board airplanes and get into military bases and other sensitive federal facilities. The lower-level license allows people to legally drive and serves those who don’t have birth certificates and other key documentation.
The new bill, Hernandez said, “merely changes what’s already current law, changes criteria.”
Supporters also lean heavily on the results of another immigration-related initiative that was on last year’s ballot in Oregon.
A little more than 63% of voters rejected Measure 105, which would have overturned Oregon’s “sanctuary law,” which essentially limits how much local and state police can work with federal immigration authorities.
“I think the thing we turned the corner on was the vote about remaining a sanctuary state,” said Jeff Stone, lobbyist for the Oregon Association of Nurseries, a key backer of the driver ID bill. “That vote was the exact opposite of the  vote.”
Oregonians for Immigration Reform put Measure 105 on the ballot after President Donald Trump repeatedly criticized cities and states that have promised haven to undocumented immigrants.
Ludwick now says his group overreached politically.
“We made a mistake,” he said. “We should have just said, ‘No, let’s spend our money trying something else.’”
Opponents of Measure 105 formed a broad coalition to fight it. They spent more than $3.5 million on a campaign that included copious TV and internet ads, lawn signs and canvassing. Oregonians for Immigration Reform spent about $500,000, but most went to just gathering the signatures to get on the ballot.
Last year’s fight helped persuade immigrant rights advocates that voters are on their side.
“Attitudes towards immigration have changed,” said Andrea Williams, executive director of Causa, which works for immigrant rights in Oregon.
She says the vote demonstrated that Oregonians value immigrant communities.
“House Bill 2015 is … about Oregon families being able to carry out basic daily needs, like going to the store to buy groceries and taking their kids to school, something that every Oregonian would want for themselves and their neighbors,” she said.
Still, opponents think the Legislature could face a backlash from voters.
House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, called the bill “very, very brazen.”
“You’ve got to be extremely careful about raising cynicism about the public process when you’re wading into things the people did through the elective process,” he said.
Republicans are particularly perturbed that the bill includes an emergency clause. In addition to allowing the measure to go into effect right after passage, this provision also prevents opponents from mounting a referendum asking voters to either accept or reject the bill.
Opponents could mount an initiative to repeal the law, but that can be a tougher process. Among other things, it takes more signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Kevin Mannix, a former Republican lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate, thinks legislators are moving toward doing the same thing on violent crime sentences.
Mannix is the author of a 1994 initiative that increased sentences for those crimes and gave prosecutors more latitude to charge juveniles in adult court. The state Senate last month passed Senate Bill 1008, which eases several of the juvenile provisions in the law.
“There’s a de-sensitizing in the Legislature these days to the will of the people,” said Mannix, charging that the Senate bill is a “gutting” of the juvenile portions of his ballot measure.
Supporters say a companion ballot measure that Mannix sponsored laid out a legislative route for adjusting crime sentences. It explicitly says legislators can do so on a two-thirds vote, which is just what the Senate did in passing the bill with bipartisan support.