SALEM — As if in a choir, immigrants and their supporters gathered outside the Oregon Capitol May 1 to proclaim, "Yes we did!"
At a massive rally and May Day march on a sunny day, Gov. John Kitzhaber signed a bill providing driver's licenses for many new groups, including immigrants who crossed the U.S. border illegally. The state Senate had approved the bill April 23 and the House within a week.
"This was a promise and I am here because we have met it," Kitzhaber told the crowd in Spanish. "A month ago when we achieved equity in tuition fees, I said we would celebrate the achievement of the licenses and I'm here to keep promises."
The emotional speech recognized a group that has suffered because of lack of driver's licenses. Kitzhaber called the new law a benefit for everyone that "increases public safety and integrated communities." Speakers said the immigrants will now be able to drive to work, school and church and that the economy could benefit.
The new law gives driving privileges for four years to immigrants who came outside official channels. Applicants must have lived in Oregon for at least a year. They also must prove their identity and date of birth.
Rep. Chris Harker, D-Beaverton, hailed the law, saying it fixes an imperfect system and makes lives better. Opponents see the law as an illogical privilege for a population that cannot work legally in the state.
But supporters of the bill are in the ascendancy.
"Today I am filled with joy," said Ramon Ramirez, president of PCUN, a farmworkers' and tree planters' union that has emerged as a leader of Oregon immigrants' rights. Ramirez called the new a law a "political triumph" that shows a changing mindset among politicians.
Ramirez called the vote a step along the path to comprehensive immigration reform, which is now being debated in Congress. Ramirez said he and other Oregon advocates planned to be in the nation's capital this week.
In what felt like a family party, the crowd sang, "The people united will never be defeated." They also chanted "Yes we did. Yes we did," a triumphal version of the immigrant movement's longtime motto, "Yes we can."