A judge in U.S. District Court in Eugene has dismissed a lawsuit seeking to give illegal immigrants in Oregon access to short-term drivers’ licenses.
The suit, filed on behalf of five unnamed illegal immigrants from Mexico, sought to restore a 2013 law, passed by the Oregon Legislature as Senate Bill 833, creating those new licenses. That law was overturned after it was referred to Oregon voters as Measure 88 in November 2014 and soundly defeated.
Oregon’s refusal to issue driver cards is unconstitutional because immigration regulation is done at the federal level and “is not a legitimate state interest,” the illegal immigrants’ lawsuit had argued. The refusal to issue licenses is “arbitrary” and “capricious” and is “motivated, at least in part, by animus towards Mexicans and Central Americans,” it said. The lawsuit named Democratic Gov. Kate Brown and leaders of the state Department of Transportation as defendants.
But, in a ruling released Monday, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken wrote that she lacked the authority to compel the state to issue drivers’ licenses outright. Moreover, she found, SB 833 never went into effect as an Oregon law. That means that, even if Aiken invalidated the voters’ rejection of Measure 88 as unconstitutional, “no (existing) law authorizes the state to grant driver cards,” Aiken wrote.
“As such, the state defendants are not refusing to issue driver cards because a referendum motivated by discriminatory animus prevents them from doing so; they cannot issue driver cards because no valid, existing Oregon law authorizes them to do so,” Aiken wrote.
Aiken’s ruling supported the argument made by the state attorney general’s office in its motion to dismiss.
Sarah Weston, assistant attorney general, wrote that the state “agrees that enacting a driver card program would have benefited (the plaintiffs) and would have been good policy for the state.”
But “the relief the plaintiffs seek — the enactment and implementation of SB 833 — cannot be imposed on the state by the federal court in this action,” Weston wrote.
“Just as would be the case with any other bill that failed to become law via the legislative process, if plaintiffs seek to have SB 833 enacted, they must try again via that process,” she added.
Representatives of the Oregon Law Center, which filed the suit on behalf of the five immigrants and two Latino-focused nonprofit organizations, could not be reached for comment on Aiken’s ruling Monday.
Oregonians for Immigration Reform, the chief opponents of Measure 88, applauded the decision.
“Today, the court has dismissed the meritless and frivolous case,” the group said in a statement. “Nearly a million voters said ‘no’ — and now the Court is standing with us. No driver cards for those who can’t prove they are legally present in the country.”
For many years, Oregon allowed residents to get a driver’s license regardless of his or her legal status. But starting in 2008, because of the federal REAL ID Act, residents have had to prove legal status to get one.
Measure 88 would have created a new type of short-term driver’s license, available to anyone who had lived in Oregon for at least a year.
Twelve states now provide drivers’ licenses regardless of people’s legal status, including Washington state, California and Nevada.
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