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Arizona is in the news… So, where is Oregon?

September 7, 2010

by Tyler Olson

For many folks the heated debate over immigration may seem a bit distant, or even irrelevant, in relation to life here in the Pacific Northwest. Arizona is a long way away and the debate seems to be concentrated there for now. Senate Bill 1070 is likely to be the most discussed legislation that the country is dealing with currently. Daily, newscasters from nearly every state and every media outlet make mention of the current proceedings, interviewing community members, employers, activists, political junkies and the like. If one only faintly tunes in to these conversations and arguments, one can quickly presume that the nation as a whole senses the grave seriousness of this discourse.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon has a large immigrant population, yet many people may not be aware of the depth and breadth of what is going on here locally—legislatively and policy wise. This to say, with the national debate over immigration reform at hand, and the disturbing question regarding  how to proceed in Arizona, the pensive and enduring murmur of conversation is beginning to localize: “So what about Oregon?”

It may come as no surprise that Oregon is waist deep in its own legislative controversies directly  affecting immigrant communities. In fact, two years ago Oregon passed Senate Bill 1080 (not to be confused with Arizona’s SB 1070), essentially making it mandatory that one must be a “legal” resident in order to obtain a DMV issued drivers license or ID. There are a variety of opinions as to why this legislation was enacted, nevertheless it is not misleading to suggest the immigrant communities—especially Latino communities—in the state have been the predominant demographic affected by its implementation.

Essentially, this legislation makes it impossible for undocumented folks—and many documented individuals as well—to obtain or renew a DMV issued driver’s license or ID, for it requires that one have a government issued Social Security.

Immigrant labor is a vital part of Oregon’s economic and social community. Nearly half of Oregon’s labor intensive workforce receiving substandard wages—i.e. farmworkers, day laborers, housekeepers, cannery workers, etc.—is Latino. In many cases, the work they are involved in is rural—far removed from any public transit line.  Therefore, these folks must drive to work. If there is no avenue through which they can legally acquire a driver’s license, people will do whatever it takes to put food in their bellies and a roof over their families’ heads. This means driving.

Therefore, this legislation provokes people to break the law out of necessity.

If this precarious law is upheld, in the coming years, as more individuals’ licenses expire, Oregon will begin to see its negative effects more openly as a large percentage of the labor force is impacted. As folks who have obtained licenses prior to its implementation are unable to apply for renewal, tough questions will be asked and decisions will be made: Do I continue driving to keep my job and risk being stopped and deported? Do we move the family to another state and risk not finding work? Are there any other options?…

With this insight, one may realize that this legislation is bound to affect these immigrant communities, as well as the social and economic situation of the state as a whole. Though, for immigrant folks in particular—equal members of society, providing positive contributions to the community—who are actively seeking to live lawfully within the state, this legislative change is seriously harming them. For it deprives them of a necessary resource while infringing on their human dignity.

As sisters and brothers of faith, we must consider this, and work to initiate and support positive, constructive, and sustainable change.

Link to Senate Bill 1080:

Tyler Olson is currently living in Portland, Oregon studying Conflict Resolution at Portland State University. Prior to graduate school he spent two years abroad, working in Honduras as a middle school literature teacher. He received his BA from George Fox University in Religion and Christian Ministries.

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