Spanish driver's license tests drop 90%
By Gosia Wozniacka
The Oregonian (Portland), November 2, 2008
The DMV office in east Portland did brisk business last February. Since then, when tougher proof of legal residency went into effect, the number of people taking driver's license tests in Spanish has plummeted.
Stricter driver's license requirements, which block illegal immigrants from getting a license, have slashed the number of Spanish speakers taking the license test in Oregon.
Critics of illegal immigration say the new law is a success. But community advocates say there has been no exodus of undocumented immigrants from Oregon.
'It's obviously working in that people who shouldn't be getting a license are not getting them,' said Jim Ludwick of Oregonians for Immigration Reform. 'I don't think all of them will leave the state, but we have been champions of attrition through enforcement.'
Gov. Ted Kulongoski ordered Driver and Motor Vehicle Services to start verifying Social Security numbers last year. The number of people taking the DMV test in Spanish fell by more than 90 percent after the governor's order went into effect in February. The number has remained equally low every month since.
Community advocates say those who lost their license are finding alternative ways of getting around, including getting a Washington license and using public transportation.
'Some people thought Latinos in Oregon would start packing their cars. But it's not happening, and it's not going to happen,' said Francisco Lopez, director of CAUSA, Oregon's immigrant rights coalition. 'They won't be going back to extreme poverty in Mexico and unemployment in Guatemala. Despite the new hardship, it's still better to be here.'
The law has had other effects: lost jobs, fewer people buying auto insurance, home foreclosures and concerns that fewer people are calling for help to social service agencies and police. The law's full effect won't be known for years, but advocates and undocumented immigrants say the community is used to living in the shadows.
New law is in step with Real ID Act
Oregon's new driver's license law asks applicants to prove they are legally in the United States by showing a passport, original birth certificate or immigration papers, as well as their Social Security number.
It put Oregon closer in compliance with the national Real ID Act, passed by Congress in 2005 as an anti-terrorism measure. If a state doesn't comply, its residents won't be able to use their driver's licenses as identification to board commercial airplanes.
Oregon is forging ahead with compliance. Starting in January, the Oregon DMV will electronically verify immigration documents using a federal database called the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE. Operated by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the database is chiefly used to verify eligibility for federal benefits, including welfare, Medicaid, unemployment and housing assistance.
Though several studies say the database is plagued with problems, more than 20 states now use it to determine driver's license eligibility.
'Our immigration system has been broken for so long and people are used to adjusting to adverse situations,' CAUSA coordinator Aeryca Steinbauer said. 'This law is another barrier, but it's ridiculous to think people will self-deport if somebody has kids in school or owns a house.'
Impact hard to measure
Estimates of how many undocumented people are in Oregon range from 120,000 to 175,000.
Statistics showing the impact of the new law are difficult to come by. Some who have lost their license say they just continue driving without one. Metro-area police departments say they have not seen significant increases in citations for driving without a license or without insurance.
Others 'borrow' the addresses of Washington residents, paying them between $200 and $800, so they can get a Washington license, undocumented immigrants said. Some even rent Washington homes or move to Washington state, although Washington DMV numbers show no significant rise in Spanish-speaking test takers since the law took effect.
Another alternative is getting a ride to work from family or friends, including U.S. citizen children who are old enough to drive.
Others without a license use public transportation, said Centro Cultural's director Sabino Sardineta. This month Centro, a Cornelius nonprofit that caters to Latinos, entered into an agreement with Ride Connection, a metro-area organization that provides transportation, including for individuals in rural Washington County where there is little public transit.
The law has increased fear among all Latinos, even those eligible for a license, Steinbauer said, 'because they feel the DMV is like the immigration office.'
Undocumented Latinos now shun any government services, Cornelius Police Chief Paul Rubenstein said.
'We're seeing a greater fear of law enforcement,' he said. 'People that need emergency services like 9-1-1 are hesitant to use them.'
The impact also has been felt in the insurance and housing markets.
'It's having a very negative effect,' said Rich Garrick with Welpland Insurance. Garrick's company has received fewer inquiries for insurance from Portland metro-area Latinos since the law passed, he said, and has sold them fewer policies.
'They are consumers and, for the most part, they no longer purchase insurance,' he said.
A few insurance companies cater to drivers without a license, Garrick said, but their policies are more expensive and getting the word out to the Latino community is difficult.
For many illegal immigrants, a driver's license was the only valid state or federal identification they owned. Latinos who lost their driver's license cannot buy, sell or refinance a house, said mortgage adviser Donaciano Garcia, of Clackamas-based Alpine Mortgage Planning. Many are stuck, he said, and may lose their homes to foreclosure.
Driver lost his job
Jose de Jesus, a Hillsboro resident who asked that his last name not be used because he's undocumented, lost his job as a driver for a Hillsboro supermarket when his license expired in June. The job, which he'd held for four years, earned him good income. His boss fired him, he said, because he could no longer get him insured.
'Many jobs require you to drive. If you don't drive, you don't work,' Jose de Jesus said.
Jose de Jesus, who came to Oregon illegally nine years ago from the Mexican state of Michoac n, drove a few times without a license after his expired. But he felt uncomfortable doing it, he said. When he found new work, he asked a fellow worker to give him rides for $20 a week.
Jose de Jesus, who owns a home and has two children in Hillsboro schools, has applied for a license in Washington state using a friend's address. In the meantime, he's working odd jobs, cleaning yards and selling tamales. He fears he may lose his house, because 'minimum wage is not enough to make the monthly payment.'
Still, Jose de Jesus said he doesn't plan to leave Hillsboro or Oregon.
'I endure the humiliation because my children go to school here and this is our home,' he said. 'We're going to stay. I'm not a criminal, I'm working to feed my family, and I have faith that our situation will improve.'