Fears of Oregon's undocumented immigrants being registered as voters after getting driver’s licenses are unfounded: Expert

On June 18, Oregon passed the Equal Access to Roads Act which removed the requirement that potential drivers prove US citizenship or legal residency to receive a state license


                            Fears of Oregon's undocumented immigrants being registered as voters after getting driver’s licenses are unfounded: Expert

Last month, Oregon took steps towards ensuring that undocumented immigrants could legally obtain driver's licenses for the first time in more than a decade.

On June 18, the House of Representatives approved HB2015, the Equal Access to Roads Act, which amended state law and removed the requirement that potential drivers prove US citizenship or legal residency to receive a state license.

Then, on June 29, state senators voted 17-10 in favor of passing the bill, which will also allow undocumented residents in the state to obtain legal identification cards and learner's permits, but not commercial driver's licenses.

Governor Kate Brown is expected to sign the bill into law, and when she does so, it will override a 2007 executive order issued by former Governor Ted Kulongoski that stopped the state from granting licenses to undocumented people and stripped the licenses of approximately 80,000 Oregonians. 

It will then come into effect in January 2021 and will expand eligible motorists by accepting a written statement that the person has not yet been assigned a social security number. 

However, it is not a popular decision by any measure.

Rep Bill Post, R-Keizer, brought up ballot history during his testimony before the House passed the bill and pointed out how in 2013, Oregon voters overwhelmingly voted to overturn a similar law that would have granted special four-year driver's cards to undocumented residents.

Others have raised what they feel is a much more important concern. Oregon automatically started registering residents based on interactions with the state’s department of motor vehicles and the Motor Voter registration law automatically began registering any Oregon resident with a driver's license in 2016.

So, doesn't that mean that an undocumented immigrant can now cast his/her vote?

Iván Hernández, who works for Oregon-based immigrant rights organization Causa, assured MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has procedures put in place to ensure that such a situation would never arise.

"The DMV currently uses an effective coding system to screen for eligible voters and sort out those who are not eligible to vote," he explained. "This system has been up and running since motor voter started because the DMV currently issues driver’s licenses to non-citizens including legal permanent residents, visa holders, and DACA recipients. The current system will remain in place under this bill."

In the current system, the DMV regularly sends the elections division a list of newly licensed drivers and those who renew their licenses. The elections division then compares the list to voter registration databases to enroll anyone who is not registered. 

But the confirmation practices that are already in place because of the Motor Voter law mean only US citizens have their names and information passed along to the Secretary of State for potential voter registration, avoiding a scenario where an undocumented immigrant will gain the ability to vote.

The House of Representatives and the State Senate has approved HB2015 (Source: Getty Images)

Another concern raised by dissenters over the bill was the potential for these undocumented immigrants to provide falsified information to the DMV. But Hernández said there was a failsafe in place for that as well.

"All drivers, regardless of citizenship or immigration status, will be required to pass a written safety exam and driver’s test and provide proof of identity and insurance, making Oregon roads and communities safer for everyone," he said.

Interestingly, despite the uproar over HB2015, Oregon is not an outlier when it comes to granting undocumented immigrants licenses. The state will become the 14th in the country to have such a law if Governor Brown signs the bill.

"Oregon joined a growing national trend. Fourteen states, including Washington and California, Utah, and New York grant driver’s licenses regardless of citizenship status and many more states are considering the move," Hernández said.

The bill's advocates say the benefits far outweigh the pitfalls and that, besides undocumented immigrants, the Equal Access to Roads Act would also benefit domestic violence survivors, the elderly, and other citizens who have trouble accessing citizenship paperwork.

"The ability to drive legally is a core everyday need for many Oregon families as people take their kids to school, commute to work, and take care of family and neighbors in need," Hernández explained. "In many communities, especially in rural Oregon, driving is part of everyday life. It’s not practical or safe for people to walk for miles on country roads just to get to and from work or take care of their families."

The bill was also introduced, in part, in response to nationwide data that indicated minor traffic violations were landing immigrants in deportation proceedings.

Last year, Syracuse University non-profit data research center Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse reported that nationwide deportations resulting from traffic violations had increased by 138% from 2016 to 2017 after President Trump took office. 

In fact, in 2017, "general traffic offenses" constituted 17% of all charges and topped the list of charges faced by ICE detainees. 

Hernández said the law had been "very successful" in bucking that trend in the other states. "In states with similar laws, traffic accidents and hit-and-run incidents have decreased, and the number of insured driver rates have increased significantly." 

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