A group of illegal immigrants is suing the state of Oregon to overturn a voter-approved initiative that denied them driver’s licenses.
The lawsuit, brought by five illegal immigrants, comes after Oregonians passed Measure 88 last year with a strong two-thirds majority. Thirty-five of Oregon’s 36 counties voted against licenses for undocumented residents, as did every congressional district in the state, most of which are represented by Democrats.
But the lawsuit alleges Measure 88 is unconstitutional because it "arbitrarily" denies driving privileges based on membership in a "disfavored minority group." It alleges Oregon voters were motivated by "animus toward persons from Mexico and Central America."
Gustavo Recarde, who has worked construction and odd jobs in Portland and several states since sneaking into the United States in 1988, said a driver's license would help him feel more comfortable here and open doors.
"If an illegal [can] get a driver's license, it would be better because there's more opportunities to find a job as a driver," said Recarde, who is not part of the lawsuit. He said he believes race played a role in the vote.
But Cynthia Kendoll, president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, said it's not the responsibility of Oregonians to make illegal immigrants comfortable or able to drive to jobs they don't legally have.
"They came here by choice, they weren't brought here against their will, and with those choices come hardships," she said.
Measure 88 was a public vote and a reaction to a law passed by the Oregon Legislature in 2013 and signed by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, that would have given "driver's cards" to those who cannot prove they are in the U.S. legally.
The campaign to deny licenses won big despite being outspent 10-to-one.
"People were not swayed by their arguments that they deserve to have a driver's card so they could more easily get to their jobs," Kendoll said. "They're not supposed to be working here."
Kendoll said Oregonians were motivated by national security and drug-smuggling by Mexican cartels, not race. Those without papers have not gone through immigration checks, she said, and licenses make it easier to transport narcotics up and down the West Coast.
Norman Williams, associate dean for academic affairs at the Willamette University College of Law in Salem, said the plaintiffs’ best argument is under the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause – and to claim Oregon has no rational basis for depriving undocumented Latin Americans of the ability to drive on Oregon's roads.
"The U.S. Supreme Court has been clear that neither legislators nor voters may target a minority group because of their race or ethnicity," he said.
The plaintiffs -- five illegal immigrants identified only by their initials -- don't have to prove every Oregon voter was racially motivated, he said.
"They do have to establish there were enough voters who voted 'no' who were prompted to do so because of racial concerns, that could have tipped the balance," he said.
Still, Williams said they face an uphill battle.
"Federal judges are very hesitant to strike down state statutes on constitutional grounds," he said.