SALEM, Ore. (AP) — As a throng of supporters cheered, Gov. John Kitzhaber signed a bill Wednesday that will let immigrants living in Oregon without legal permission obtain driver's licenses.
The signing on the Capitol steps during a May Day immigration rally marked a significant victory for immigrant rights activists.
"This bill is a part of a larger vision where all Oregonians deserve and get their shot at the American dream," Kitzhaber told the crowd.
It was a festive atmosphere as hundreds of people shouted in Spanish, "Yes we can!"
"This is a historic moment for the Latino community in the state of Oregon," shouted Ramon Ramirez, head of a largely Hispanic farmworkers' union PCUN.
Among the many signs held aloft at the rally was one reading, "Thank you. Now I can drive my kids to school."
Speakers at the rally called on Congress to act quickly on an immigration overhaul. Afterward, the crowd marched off, cheering and chanting along the way.
Yesenia Sanchez of St. Helens came to Salem to witness the signing of the driver's license bill and to march for immigration reform.
"The next step is Washington, D.C., the White House. Immigration reform. That's what we're looking for," Sanchez said as she marched down the street holding high a sign reading, "Keep Families Together."
As of Jan. 1, tens of thousands of immigrants living in Oregon without legal permission will be able to get four-year driver's licenses, half as long as a standard Oregon license.
Immigrants and others who don't have documents proving they are in the country lawfully, including elderly and homeless people, could apply for the driver's licenses if they've lived in Oregon for at least a year and meet other requirements.
Consuelo Juarez, a Salem resident who came to the rally with her young children, said she is proud of Oregon for passing the driver's license bill.
"This will help my whole family," Juarez said.
The restricted driver's licenses could not be used to vote, board a plane or buy a firearm. The licenses would be marked "Driver's Card" to distinguish it from a standard Oregon license.
As the bill was debated in the Oregon Legislature, supporters said it would make roads safer. Opponents contended it would lure more people to come to Oregon illegally.
Among the backers of the bill was Oregon's tree and plant nursery industry, which relies heavily on immigrant workers.
It is the second major victory for immigrants-rights advocates in Oregon this year. Earlier this month, Kitzhaber signed into law a proposal allowing students who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children to pay in-state tuition at Oregon universities.
Kitzhaber released the following statement after he signed the bill:
“Today I signed into law a bill that not only improves our public safety, but helps Oregonians integrate into and contribute to our society and economy.
Senate Bill 833 has straightforward goal: to improve traffic safety by reducing the number of unlicensed and uninsured motorists on Oregon roads. With this bill, all Oregonians can take a driver’s exam, get a license, get car insurance, and drive safely to and from work or school, church or the store.
This bill is motivated by a larger vision – one where all Oregonians deserve and get their shot at the American dream. One where we are committed in our policymaking and in our daily lives to equity and opportunity for all. Where we are creating secure jobs with upward income mobility, and supporting safe, secure communities where people have a sense of common purpose and commitment to one another.
More than 235 years after our country’s founding, the idea of pursuing a more prosperous future still rings true and still gives us hope. It promises us that if we work hard, we can build a better life for ourselves and our families. It promises that our children will be better off than we were, and their kids better off yet. It promises us equal opportunity to succeed, no matter what language we speak at home.
Today we are here to keep those promises.
We are celebrating the promise of a better future, for every Oregonian. And we are celebrating that our democracy is made stronger – in fact, our democracy is made possible – because we share that belief in the American Dream and are working together to achieve it.”