RALEIGH — Republicans in the state House of Representatives have proposed a temporary moratorium on issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants who are part of a federal program that blocks deportation for two years.
The bill was introduced Thursday, a week after Transportation Secretary Tony Tata announced that licenses would be issued to thousands of participants in the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Rep. Mark Brody, a Republican from Monroe who was one of the sponsors, said the proposed legislation “strictly asks for more time.”
Brody said Thursday he thinks Tata overstepped his authority by issuing his directive to issue licenses on Feb. 14.
“We were informed by the Department of Transportation that this is what we’re going to do,” Brody said. “We said, ‘Wait, this isn’t how we work in North Carolina. You don’t tell us what we need to do. We tell you what we need to do.’ ”
Tata’s announcement came nearly a month after the state Attorney General’s office issued an opinion that participants in the federal program qualify for driving privileges because they have “legal presence” in North Carolina. The immigrants in the program – teenagers and young adults who were brought to the United States illegally as children – meet requirements set by state law for drivers who are not U.S. citizens, according to the attorney general’s opinion.
As of last week, 15,637 people in North Carolina had been granted deferred action by the federal government. Only five states – California, Texas, New York, Illinois and Florida – had more participants in the first seven months of the program.
Under Tata’s policy, the state Division of Motor Vehicles is to begin issuing licenses on March 25 to DACA participants who pass tests and provide documentation.
The bill introduced Thursday – sponsored by Brody and Reps. John R. Bell IV of Goldsboro; Chris Mills of Hampstead; and Donny Lambeth of Winston-Salem, all first-year Republicans – calls for a moratorium on issuing licenses until June 15.
“We need to decide, number one, if we’re going to issue these licenses,” Brody said. “We have the right at the state level to decide that.”
Brody said the lawmakers are not questioning Tata’s expertise or qualifications to set policy for the state’s transportation department. But the new legislator said the issue of who gets driving privileges is one for the General Assembly to determine.
“We need to set that policy – or maybe a better word would be directive,” Brody said.
Design an issue
The proposed design of the licenses has stirred outrage among immigrant advocates. Mock-ups distributed on Feb. 14 by DMV officials showed “NO LAWFUL STATUS” in red capital letters on the license, as well as “LIMITED TERM,” also in red capital letters.
Armando Bellmas, a spokesman for the Latin American Coalition, based in Charlotte, said his organization was heartened that licenses would be issued, but “shocked and appalled” by the inclusion of such phrases.
“It baffles us that rather than using its resources for other much-needed programs, the current state administration is making use of taxpayer money to create a new license class with a discriminatory message regarding a group of individuals who have grown up in and contributed to the growth of the state of North Carolina,” Bellmas said in a prepared statement. “This new license puts more obstacles in front of many young immigrants, creating a class of ‘inferior’ citizens.”
Representatives of the ACLU of North Carolina were further outraged Thursday after finding out that state DMV officials have a redesign in the works that would further distinguish driver’s licenses for people who are not U.S. citizens.
Greer Beaty, a spokeswoman for the state transportation department, said a license redesign project has been under way “for a long time,” but she did not elaborate on how many months or years.
Starting next year, Beaty said, anyone who gets a new license will see a design change.
“We’ve been working on a new driver’s license that is more secure,” Beaty said.
Immigrant advocates say they worry that if the licenses become too distinguishing that DACA participants will forgo them for fear of being marked with a modern-day scarlet letter.
Advocates of issuing licenses say they’re likely to lead to more insured drivers and improved traffic safety.
Voter ID concern
Some critics say the licenses should look different from those of U.S. citizens, so they won’t be misused. They cite voter fraud as a concern.
Last year, the Republican-led General Assembly passed a voter ID bill, which was vetoed by Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat.
Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican sworn into office in January, has voiced support for the measure.
Immigrant advocates said they worried about creating a licensing system with so many distinguishing marks.
“We are very much concerned about creating a tag, a mark and a bull’s-eye for all non-citizens who are licensed in North Carolina,” said Raul Pinto, the staff attorney for the ACLU-NC Legal Foundation. “North Carolina should not be making it harder for aspiring citizens to integrate and contribute to our communities by branding them with a second-class driver’s license. ... There is simply no reason for officials to stigmatize people who are in the U.S. legally with an unnecessary marker that could lead to harassment, confusion and racial profiling.”