NC Republicans consider immigrant driving permits

Lawmakers also weigh status checks after traffic offenses

Washington CorrespondentApril 4, 2013 

— Republican lawmakers in North Carolina are expected next week to propose a sweeping new state law that would grant driving privileges to residents living in the country illegally but also would adopt Arizona-type enforcement measures authorizing police to check the immigration status of people they question for other suspected offenses.

Supporters say the proposal, a sign of a more welcoming approach that some states are taking with their unauthorized residents, would make the roads safer and help identify those who had been living hidden in society.

The measure also has significant political implications as national Republican leaders have warned the party must expand its appeal to Latinos. It’s not an easy task for a Republican-led North Carolina legislature, which must walk a fine line in reaching out to the state’s rapidly growing Latino community without antagonizing the party’s conservative base.

Recent local controversies have not helped the Republicans’ image with Latinos. Advocacy groups were incensed about state proposals to issue so-called “pink licenses” for young immigrants who had been living in the country illegally but had been granted federal protection from being deported. The licenses, which included a large pink stripe, were scrapped after advocates described them as modern-day scarlet letters. Then, last month, it was revealed that Republican Gov. Pat McCrory decided to eliminate the state’s office for Latino affairs. The governor’s office responded that the office wasn’t closed, but it was shifting duties.

The House bill is bound to evoke strong emotions on both sides of the immigration debate. But, for now, immigrant groups are focused primarily on the anticipation of possibly getting driving privileges again for residents not properly documented. If the legislation is passed, North Carolina would become the fifth state to grant driving privileges to those who are unable to prove legal residency. California and Maryland are considering similar measures.

“It’s a miracle what is happening,” said Maudia Melendez, head of the Charlotte advocacy group Jesus Ministry, who has spent years lobbying the state legislature for immigrant licenses. “This will bring order to our state. ... There are some things (in the proposal) that I’m not in agreement with, but at the end of the day you either give something up or you don’t get anything.”

Some Latinos, concerned about the potential for government abuse, worry about identifying themselves as being in the country illegally. But advocates say the greater risk for immigrants is being pulled over without a license and being deported.

Permit, not license

Republican state Rep. Harry Warren, who last year co-chaired a special House panel on immigration, said this week that he planned to introduce his legislation Tuesday or Wednesday. He declined to share details, but he said the bill “focuses on an appropriate state-level response to the issue of illegally present persons in North Carolina.”

An estimated 325,000 people live illegally in North Carolina.

Details are still being finalized, but those familiar with the discussions say driving applicants likely would be required to prove they’ve lived in the state for a year and demonstrate proof of insurance. Those who pass all required tests will be eligible for temporary driving permits – not driver’s licenses. It’s unclear whether the one-year permit would be renewed.

The enforcement measures likely would include a provision, recently approved by the U.S. Supreme Court, that allows police to check the citizenship status of people questioned for suspected violations. Other aspects under consideration include stiffer penalties for the use of fake IDs, strengthening the employment E-verify program, and impounding cars of those with revoked licenses and selling the vehicles to raise money for schools.

Republican state Rep. Frank Iler, who was co-chairman of the immigration panel, said Warren has gotten input from every interested constituency, including law enforcement, Latino advocates and those who support greater immigration enforcement.

“A general philosophy of mine is to do the best we can to protect the state and our citizens from what I consider the failure of the federal government to do their job, including controlling the border as well as being able to identify who is in the U.S. and who is in North Carolina,” Iler said.

While Latino groups are cautiously optimistic, those who promote stiffer immigration penalties say the legislation sounds like a form of what some call amnesty.

Ron Woodard, the director of N.C. Listen, which has discussed the potential legislation with Warren, said he was supportive of many of the enforcement measures. His group suggested impounding the cars of those (including U.S. citizens) caught driving with revoked licenses. But he said offering driving privileges would only encourage more illegal immigration.

“They’re giving the store away by giving a driver’s permit,” Woodard said. “They’re calling it a permit – except for being able to get on an airplane or vote, it’s a driver’s license. They can call it whatever they want. Put lipstick on a pig. It’s a driver’s license.”

Once a hub for licenses

The issue of driver’s licenses for those illegally in the country has long been a sore spot in North Carolina.

A 2006 North Carolina law made it impossible for those in the country illegally to renew their licenses. But for years previous, state leaders purposely made it easy to get a license to ensure all drivers, regardless of status, had insurance and understood driving laws. The result was that thousands of immigrants unauthorized to be in the country would travel to North Carolina from New York and other Northeast cities solely to get a driver’s license because North Carolina didn’t require proof of legal status.

Republicans can’t risk angering Latinos, and their growing voter base, any more than they already have, said Peter Siavelis, the director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at Wake Forest University.

He noted the community makes up nearly 9 percent of the state’s population, but only 1.7 percent of registered voters.

“So if they start registering and turning out, there could be some problems for the Republican majority in Raleigh,” he said.

The House bill has yet to be introduced and is a long way from being passed.

Rep. Jonathan Jordan, who is assisting Warren with the legislation, said they’re working with House leadership on this legislation and expect their support.

In a sign of how difficult the road ahead is, another effort to grant driver’s licenses to those in the country illegally was introduced in the state Senate on Tuesday. Within 24 hours, the Republican primary sponsor, Stan Bingham, removed his name from the bill after receiving angry calls from constituents.

“In my district, it’s a really tough issue,” Bingham said. “For safety reasons, I thought (the legislation) was a good idea, but then in talking to my constituents about it, I thought, ‘Oh man, I better just eat crow and back off.’ ”

Charlotte Observer staff writer Andrew Dunn contributed.

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