Kitzhaber: Oregon police will soon accept Mexican consular cards

Kitzhaber: Oregon police will soon accept Mexican consular cards
FILE - Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber looks on during a news conference Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012, in Salem, Ore. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Law enforcement officials in Oregon are preparing to accept identification cards issued by the Mexican government to prove people's identities during traffic stops and other police contacts, Gov. John Kitzhaber announced in a letter to May Day demonstrators Tuesday.

The effort comes four years after Oregon began requiring driver's license applicants to prove that they're legally in the country. Thousands of people will be unable to renew their driver's licenses as they expire, and police need a way to accurately identify them, said Kitzhaber, a Democrat.

Kitzhaber said he's asked civic leaders to study the issue and he hopes to eventually change the law, "allowing people to come out of the shadows and contribute to our state's economic recovery." He did not specify how he'd like the law to change.

"Right now, too many Oregonians are travelling from home to work, or school, or church, in risk of violating the law," the governor wrote. "They are forced to choose between this risk and providing for their families."

Kitzhaber was traveling to Washington Tuesday to meet with federal health officials and did not attend the May Day rally on the steps of the state Capitol. His letter was read by Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian.

Critics say granting driving privileges to illegal immigrants creates an incentive to violate immigration laws.

The governor's letter said Oregon State Police officials are working with local law enforcement agencies to develop a better administrative and training process that will allow officers to use identification other than a driver's license to verify people's identities. Technology upgrades will allow state troopers to process High Security Mexican Consular Identification Cards, which are issued by Mexican consulates and known commonly as Matricula Consular.

Oregon State Police will begin accepting consular cards, and state troopers are currently being trained to verify them. It's unclear whether every local police agency in the state will accept the cards, but it's likely that some will.

A crowd of hundreds, some wearing yellow buttons saying "restore driver's licenses for all," cheered the news.

Illegal immigrants will still be unable to get a driver's license, but people who drive without one are generally cited and released. State officials say the ability to accept and verify Matricula Consular cards will help officers verify identities faster.

In some cases, drivers who can't produce identification are taken into custody until police can ensure there are no outstanding warrants, said Lt. Gregg Hastings, an Oregon State Police spokesman. State troopers are getting information about verifying the Mexican ID cards.

"Hopefully this could be one step ... so that we can make professional and fair decisions out there on the roadway with anyone who we're in contact with, whether they're a resident of our state or a visitor to our state," Hastings said.

Responding to concerns from federal authorities that Oregon was issuing licenses to nonresidents, the state Legislature voted in 2008 to require Driver and Motor Vehicle Services workers to verify the legal presence of applicants for driver's licenses.

Officials expected to see increases in unlicensed and uninsured drivers, but state data presented to the Legislature this year showed that there has been no increase in the number of crashes involving such drivers. The report says the numbers could change as more licenses expire and can't be renewed, generally eight years after being issued.

A state Senate committee last year considered a bill that would give a special driver's license to people who can't produce a birth certificate. It would've granted driving privileges but couldn't be used for other purposes such as obtaining a concealed handgun permit, registering to vote or betting at a race track. The committee heard public testimony on the idea but did not vote on the measure.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.