SEATTLE — A year ago, Washington was one of just three states granting driver's licenses to any person living in the U.S. illegally -- holding firm against a nationwide trend.
But across the country this year, a curious thing has happened: A growing number of states are reversing course and seven have now joined the three.
In recent months, all but two states have tweaked their policies to give driver's licenses to tens of thousands of young people who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children and granted reprieve from deportation and permission to work.
On top of that, measures to allow driver's licenses or driving-privilege cards to millions of undocumented immigrants were introduced in about 18 states this year. While most are pending, seven bills have been enacted into law, to become effective over the next two years or so.
Among the seven states is Oregon, where Gov. John Kitzhaber signed legislation to allow state residents in the country unlawfully to be allowed to legally drive, reversing an action his predecessor took six years earlier.
Oregon next year will begin issuing the four-year driver's cards, which also can be used as ID in some cases, though not to access federal buildings or board commercial flights.
Immigrant advocates say the turn of events reflects a shift in the national conversation around immigration and acknowledgment by some that licensed and insured drivers are safer on the roads. Additionally, many states have also recognized that it's possible to allow undocumented immigrants to legally drive, while still conforming to stricter federal requirements for government-issued licenses and IDs.
"This is a far cry from when Washington was facing several bills to take access away from these working men and women," said Charlie McAteer, with OneAmerica, a Seattle-based immigrant-advocacy group.
A bill to deny driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants was introduced this year in the Legislature but didn't receive a hearing.
"Now in 2013 we are excited that several states are signifying momentum in the other direction," McAteer said.
Immigrants in states where they are unable to get licenses drive anyway -- without having to pass a driving test or buy auto insurance. And a recent study in California by the state Department of Motor Vehicles showed that unlicensed drivers are nearly three times as likely to cause a crash.
Craig Keller heads a group called Respect Washington, which for years has tried but failed to collect enough signatures for an initiative to deny certain benefits, including driver's licenses, to those in the country illegally.
He's collecting signatures for another initiative this year, as well as for a referendum to help repeal the Oregon law.
"There is no doubt America and many states are now under attack by those who wish to amnesty and legitimize millions of illegal alien lawbreakers," Keller said. "Loosening of driver's license standards is just one prong in this attack."
For years, Washington, New Mexico and Utah were the only states where undocumented immigrants could obtain a licenses to drive, with Utah offering a driving-privilege card that could not be used for identification. This patchwork was, in part, the result of other states moving to comply with REAL ID, a 2005 law that established a set of strict federal standards to make state-issued driver's licenses and ID cards more secure as recommended by the 9/11 Commission.
REAL ID requires states to, among other things, create tamper-proof driver's licenses and require proof of legal presence from license applicants.
Many states have called it an unfunded mandate, and eight years after its passage, more than 30 still do not comply with REAL ID.
The deadline has been repeatedly extended, but it is possible that at some point everyone living in states that are not REAL ID compliant would be unable to use their licenses to enter federal buildings and board commercial airplanes.
While Washington state has met many of the federal benchmarks, it's unlikely the state ever could achieve full compliance unless the state Legislature makes changes to the law by which the state issues driver's licenses.
That's because Washington issues the same primary driver's license to those in the country illegally as it does to everyone else.
All the states that are now reversing course to allow undocumented immigrants to legally drive have at least a two-tier system through which they issue licenses -- with one type of license for U.S. citizens and others able to show lawful presence here, and a second for those who cannot.