- Associated Press - Thursday, October 9, 2014

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - The battle over whether Oregon should grant driving privileges to immigrants who can’t prove they are in the U.S. legally is ramping up in rural parts of the state where there is a growing Latino population.

As the Nov. 4 election nears, proponents of driving privileges are holding campaign events in those areas, including a seven-mile march this weekend from Scappoose to St. Helens.

They say issuing the licenses would increase safety by prompting more people to learn the rules of the road and get insurance.

“This measure is … about our neighbors, who have lived here, often for decades, being able to live with dignity,” said Amanda Aguilar Shank, coordinator with the Scappoose-based Rural Organizing Project, a coalition of human rights groups across rural Oregon. “It’s about families getting to work and being able to drive their children to school.”

Earlier this year, 28 of the 36 sheriffs in the state voted to oppose the measure. Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin argued it would create “a magnet for bad people to come to Oregon to seek identification that’s legitimized by the state.”

Measure 88 asks voters to accept or reject a state law signed by Gov. John Kitzhaber last year that would grant four-year driver’s cards that cannot be used to vote or get government benefits.

Oregonians for Immigration Reform, a group founded by Jim Ludwick, a retired horse ranch owner from Yamhill County, gathered enough signatures to place the measure on the ballot and put the law on hold.

Public opinion research has shown conservatives and older adults, along with individuals without a college degree, tend to favor more restrictive immigration policies.

Proponents of driving privileges point to rapidly changing demographics as one of the reasons they’re focusing on rural Oregon in their campaign.

According to the 2010 Census, more than half the counties in Oregon - most rural - saw growth of over 50 percent in the Latino populations during the past decade. Roughly a third of residents in Hood River, Malheur, Morrow and Umatilla counties are Hispanic, according to data compiled by the Population Research Center at Portland State University.

The Pew Hispanic Center said there are about 160,000 unauthorized immigrants living in Oregon, or 4.3 percent of the total population and one-third of Latinos in the state.

Thousands of immigrants work in nurseries, orchards and farm fields, so the state agriculture industry has been especially supportive of driver’s cards.

“We want people to get to work, to church, to the store,” said Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries. “We have a hard enough time getting labor right now, and we don’t want to further erode a hardworking workforce from being a vital part of this economy.”

To increase support for the measure, the Rural Organizing Project has held phone bank events in Bend and rallies in McMinnville, Newberg and Dundee in Yamhill County, the heart of the state wine industry.

Strong support already exists in some rural areas such as Hood River, where Latinos make up 29 percent of the population. Republican State Sen. Chuck Thomsen, a fourth-generation orchardist in the area, sponsored the driver’s card bill.

“I grew up with Hispanics … In my community, people interact, they’re neighbors, you meet them at school, you get to know them and you’re comfortable,” said Thomsen. “In many rural communities, that’s the way it is, it’s no big deal.”

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