By BRAD CAIN
SALEM, Ore. -
The illegal immigration issue simmered just below the surface Monday as the Oregon Senate approved a bill to require proof of legal U.S. residence to get a driver's license in the state.
The measure was sent to the House on a 23-7 vote after backers said Oregon's loose rules have made the state a target for noncitizens who seek to obtain identification cards for "nefarious" purposes.
Several senators who voted "no" said the requirement will create hardships for many of the state's undocumented workers and force them to drive unlicensed with no insurance.
The measure would largely place into state statutes tighter identification requirements that are included in an executive order by Gov. Ted Kulongoski that went into effect last week.
Under those requirements, people seeking to obtain, renew or replace an existing license are required to provide a Social Security number or other proof of legal residence that can be verified by the state Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division.
Additionally, immigrants must show they have a current visa to be able to get a temporary license that's valid only as long as the visa is valid.
During Monday's Senate debate, much of the discussion focused on whether the measure has anything to do with immigration.
Supporters said the tougher requirements are needed for national security because they will help prevent terrorists or drug dealers from fraudulently obtaining identification.
Sen. Rick Metsger of Welches said the bill "is about ensuring that Oregon's driver's licenses and those that hold them are protected from identity theft and the serious consequences Oregonians face by this increasingly reported activity."
Other backers said the bill would represent a step toward complying with new federal rules on identification documents which were prompted by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Metsger is one of four Democrats running for Oregon secretary of state. The three other Democrats cast "no" votes, including Sen. Vicki Walker of Eugene, who asserted that backers of the bill were trying to obscure the real issue.
"If you tell me this bill isn't about immigration, you're wearing rose-colored glasses," Walker said.
Other opponents said the rules are discriminatory and will work a hardship on undocumented workers and the businesses that hire them - especially in agriculture - by ultimately denying driving privileges to many workers.
"We should consider the real damage we are doing to our sense of community," said Sen. Avel Gordly, a Portland independent.