Ethical Arguments for Drivers’ Cards for Oregon’s Unauthorized Immigrants: Senate Bill 833


In May 2013, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber signed Senate Bill 833 with the controversial clause that applicants do not need to prove their legal resident in the United States to receive a drivers’ card. The Bill was a response to the December 2007 SB 1080 (Oregon Driver’s License Law) that required that people in Oregon present evidence of legal residence in the United States to receive a driver’s license.
The law has not gone into effect because opponents of allowing unauthorized migrants driver’s cards acquired sufficient signatures to put the measure on the November 2014 ballot.
What are some of the ethical issues at stake?
First, people, especially in rural areas, need cars to work, study, buy groceries and otherwise acquire the necessities of life. It’s important to stress what is at stake here: not having the legal ability to drive will cause considerable hardship to some people.  We should keep in mind that unauthorized migrants are members of families, some of whom may be citizens or legal residents. So even people who want to deny authorized migrants the right to apply for a drivers’ card need to ask about the consequences to people who are legally in the country, particularly children.
Second, the benefits to other drivers are significant. Causa which advocates for immigrant rights reports that Mike Reese, Chief of the Portland Police Bureau insists that “this law will enhance the safety and well-being of all Oregon drivers.”The opportunity to receive a driver’s card creates an incentive for people to take the driving test, learn the law, and acquire insurance. Juan Carlos Valle makes these points cogently in an Oregonian opinion piece: Oregonians Should Support Driver Card Measure
Third, Joseph Carens has argued persuasively for creating a “firewall” between immigration enforcement and other areas of administration. Having other parts of the government enforce immigration laws causes two problems: 1) efficiency: enforcing the rules that belong to other parts of the administration distracts from the proper tasks of the agency (e.g., policing is less efficient when potential witnesses to felonies do not come forward because of their immigration status); 2) justice: the stricter we make requirements to establish legal status, the more people who will be illegitimately denied serves they are legally entitled to.
What are some of the arguments against SB 833?
One of the most common arguments is that people who have broken the law should not be allowed to enjoy other privileges such as driving. As State Representative Dennis Richardson writes, “illegal is illegal.” This argument is not compelling. Unauthorized migrants have violated an administrative law, something we don’t normally punish by denial to other services. An analogy would be to deny drivers’ licenses to people who have received parking tickets.
Oregonians for Immigration Reform (OFIR), an organization dedicated to opposing unauthorized immigration, has created a spinoff Protect Oregon Driver’s Licenses to oppose Senate Bill 833. OFIR sees denying drivers’ cards to unauthorized migrants as part of a larger strategy to lower migration. OFIR’s position is well-represented by a January 2014 Oregonian opinion piece by former OFIR vice-president Richard LaMountain. LaMountain claims that 1) Oregonians are unemployed because of unauthorized migrants and 2) more unauthorized migrants will move to Oregon if they are able to receive a drivers’ card.
The major problem with these claims is that they’re unsupported and most like false.
LaMountain’s main source for these two claims is a report by PSU researchers that does not cite. He appears to be referring to this report by Dr. Mary King: Assessment of the Socio-Economic Impacts of SB 1080 on Immigrants GroupsDr. King’s report does not support LaMountain’s claims. Rather, it concludes that there is no evidence at the time of the study that SB 1080 reduced the unauthorized population and that its model suggests that documented workers would benefit by an additional 500-800 jobs and a wage increase of .1% to .2%. This means that a documented worker making $3000 a month might earn $3006 a month.
Furthermore, the claim that the employment of migrants reduces the number of jobs for non-migrants is based on the view that the economy has a fixed number of jobs. This is generally false. More migrants mean more consumers, adding demand to the economy and in many circumstances creating jobs.
The suggestion that more people would move to Oregon for a drivers’ card is implausible. Currently, twelve states have or have pending legislation giving unauthorized migrants driver’s licenses or cards. Migrants come largely because of the availability of jobs. It is unlikely that people willing to brave the desert, smugglers, and vigilantes and to endure hard labor for low wages under exploitative and often abusive conditions will suddenly pack up and leave because they’re not legally entitled to a driver’s card.
Carens writes in The Ethics of Immigration that “the right to enforce immigration laws is not a moral carte blanche” and must be “constrained by norms of proportionality and rationality, norms that are violated by punitive policies that drive irregular migrants further underground without significantly advancing the goals of immigration control.” (144) The benefits to unauthorized migrants, to their family members, and to the drivers around the state, and the lack of compelling arguments to the contrary, there are strong moral reasons to support providing driver’s cards.

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