On June 25, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled on Arizona immigration laws.  It voted against some portions of existing statutes – but upheld the right of police to check the immigration status of people they stop for traffic or other offenses.  Immigrants in Oregon will feel the result of this ruling.

One of them is Independence resident Maria Calle (not her real name). Today, in the Willamette Valley, she  is driving with a license that will expire in 2015. Calle, who has a daughter born in Oregon and who works in a business with other family members, does not have legal immigration status. Faced with the prospect of driving without a legal license or the hassle of finding alternate transportation, she says she may go back to Mexico unless the law changes. “I hope immigration law can be reformed to give legal status to those who have proven themselves honest and hardworking,” she says.

Typical of Oregon Latino families, Calle has family members who are citizens and legal residents as well as undocumented ones.

The requirement that Oregon residents prove citizenship to obtain a driver’s license went into effect in July of 2008 as Governor Kulongoski sought to comply with the Real ID Act. The Act, passed by Congress in 2005 in a climate of national security concerns following 9/11, has created bureaucratic headaches and financial burdens for the states, and deadlines for full compliance have been postponed to January 2013.

The driver’s license restrictions have also created hardship for thousands of Oregon’s undocumented workers who need to find alternative transportation to get to work or risk driving without a valid license or insurance. “People feel insecure and very afraid even if they have not committed a serious crime; they are considered delinquent for driving without a license,” says Calle, who has noticed a difference in her community since the law changed in 2008.

By 2020 the licenses of roughly 80,000 undocumented workers will have expired, leaving them without consistent, legal and insured transportation.

In addition, not having a license as standard ID creates obstacles for immigrants cashing checks or sending money to relatives.

On May 1, Governor Kitzhaber created a task force to consider the unintended consequences of the law. There are safety concerns, economic ramifications, legal questions and ethical dilemmas, according to Francisco Lopez, executive director of the Salem-based immigrant rights group, CAUSA. Lopez sits on the task force, which includes law enforcement, labor, business leaders and members of the faith community.

The Governor recently said Mexican Matricula Consular IDs could be used to establish identity during routine traffic stops. However, the Federation for American Immigration Reform has complained that these cards are highly susceptible to fraud and says that allowing their use glosses over the violation of federal and state laws. Independence Police Chief Vernon Wells says he has not seen many of the cards since the Governor’s announcement, but that the cards meant to be a temporary fix are confusing. “People think that they can be used in place of driver’s licenses,” he says.

A proposal to address this problem might be a state-issued driver’s only license option not valid as official ID. Senator Chip Shields has sponsored,  Senate Bill 845 to do this.

Public safety is affected when people drive without a license or insurance. AAA statistics show that one of every five fatal crashes involve a driver who is definitely or possibly driving without insurance. People who are afraid of having their immigration status challenged are also less likely to come forward to report a crime or as a witness. Also, Lopez points out that it is legally problematic and a waste of resources for local law enforcement to be put in a position of enforcing immigration. It’s not their job.

Calle says she knows people who have been stopped simply for driving old cars, which happens especially around the holidays, she says. She thinks that because Latinos don’t have a lot of money and can’t buy new cars, the old car is a cue for police. She says she knows many people who are afraid to drive and pay others who have documentation to drive them. She describes a situation where an undocumented worker she knows was on a break in his car when he was stopped and cited for driving without a license.

According to Calle, when he came before the judge he was challenged, “Do you know what your situation is in this country? You can’t drive, right? This time you can pay money but if you get stopped again, you might get deported.”

Independence Police Chief Vernon Wells says it is a perception based on fear. He says that questions of immigration status or national origin do not come up at all in routine traffic stops. He doubts Calla’s account.
Municipal Court Judge Jan Zyryanoff, who hears cases in Independence, concurs. “Immigration status is not an issue and it would almost never come up,” she says. Judge Zyryanoff does hear a lot of cases for driving with “no operator’s license” or “driving with a suspended license” and these involve migrants trying to get to work.

In regards to the potential problem of witnesses being afraid to come forward, Chief Wells says absolutely no one should be afraid. “It’s a constitutional right to be protected from crime. Your country of origin or immigration status is absolutely not an issue,” he says. He stresses that if anyone hears of a situation that is unfair, he will have one of his bilingual officers look into it.

Independence has three fully bilingual officers on a police force of 12. According to the 2009 census statistics the population of Independence is 36.7% Hispanic.

Critics who oppose attempts to restore driver’s licenses to any qualified Oregonian regardless of immigration status say immigrants are taking the jobs of unemployed Oregon citizens. They worry that relaxing restrictions will encourage more illegal immigration.

Lopez says the elected politicians are partly to blame for the scapegoating of immigrants. “It’s not ‘Juan’ who created the economic crisis,“ he says “it’s ‘John’.” He describes a hypothetical Wall Street billionaire making risky trades and shoveling his money offshore to the Bahamas to avoid taxes. But politicians would prefer to focus on “Juan” rather than “John” because “John” funds their campaigns.

“Juan doesn’t run Wall Street. Juan cleans toilets and works in the fields…”

According to the Oregon Center for Public Policy there are 110,000 to 220,000 undocumented immigrants in Oregon who contribute between $68 and 138 million in state and local income and who pay between $154 to $300 million in taxes.

On June 15th President Obama announced a new policy not to deport eligible undocumented youth in a temporary relief known as “deferred action.” It is uncertain how this will intersect with the current driver’s license policy in Oregon. But since deferred action is recognized under the Real ID Act, there is a strong argument, according to CAUSA, that those youth will now be eligible to get a driver’s license.