SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Oregon lawmakers on Thursday heard their first public testimony on a bill to grant short-term driver's licenses to people who can't prove they're legally in the United States, and the discussion got heated as opponents said it would encourage more people to come to Oregon illegally and supporters said it would make the state's roads safer.
The room was packed during the hearing before the Senate Business and Transportation Committee.
Jim Ludwick, a critic of immigration reform, said more people would move to Oregon illegally if they knew they could get licenses without showing documentation. He also said the bill, if passed, would create a culture of crime in the state.
"The most important document a terrorist can possess is a valid driver's license," he told lawmakers.
The bill would partially ease up on a 2008 law that required driver's license applicants to prove they are citizens or lawful residents of the United States. It would allow immigrants who have lived in Oregon for at least a year and meet other requirements to apply for driver's licenses without proving legal presence. The card would be valid only for four years - half as long as a standard Oregon license - and would state "driving privilege only." It could not be used to vote, board a plane or purchase a firearm.
Frank Garcia Jr., a policy adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber, said the bill is intended to improve safety and reduce the number of uninsured drivers on the road.
"All Oregonians need the ability to participate in the local economy and community by driving to church, the store, school and work," he said.
Sen. Chuck Thomsen of Hood River, a Republican sponsor of the bill, said this is a pressing issue for the state, and Oregon shouldn't wait for Congress to pass nationwide immigration reform.
"Until Congress acts to provide a clear national policy for immigration issues, we must act locally to protect the public safety and our state's economy," Thomsen said.
Illinois, New Mexico, and Washington allow driver's licenses for those living in the country illegally, and Utah grants immigrants a driving permit that can't be used for identification. Colorado and Maryland, among other states, are considering similar proposals this year.
A task force set up by the governor crafted the bill over the past two years, working with the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division, Republican and Democratic lawmakers, as well as law enforcement representatives, business groups, the insurance industry, faith communities, farm labor groups and immigrant advocates. The bill's sponsors include two Democrats and two Republicans from each chamber of the Legislature.
Kitzhaber signed into law last week a proposal allowing students who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children to pay in-state tuition at Oregon universities.
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