NC immigrant advocates like proposed driving permits

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comApril 12, 2013 

— Some immigrant activists say they’re determined to bridge their differences with Republican legislators in a carrot-and-stick bargain that would join tough, Arizona-style immigration enforcement measures with long-sought legal driving privileges for thousands of North Carolina immigrants who are in the United States illegally.

“If this is an initiative that will get us closer to a driving permit, then we’re going to engage in that conversation,” said Jose Torres-Don of the N.C. Dream Team, a Carrboro-based immigrant youth organization.

Civil rights and immigrant groups were critical of several provisions in the House bill filed Wednesday by state Rep. Harry Warren, a Republican from Rowan County. Defendants in criminal and traffic cases could be denied bail and forced to pay the cost of their incarceration – and could forfeit their automobiles – if they were found to be in the country illegally. Police could detain people for 24 hours while they check their immigration status.

“We really want to see them make some changes,” said Maudia Melendez, director of the Charlotte-based Jesus Ministry, who has lobbied for two years to restore driving privileges that were enjoyed by unlawful residents here until 2006. “Our hope is that the end product is not going to be what we have now.”

But even with her civil liberties concerns, Melendez said the proposal for restricted driving permits was important for both North Carolina as a whole and an estimated 325,000 residents who are here illegally.

The permits would be issued to unlawful residents who pass a criminal background check. Their thumbprints would be displayed on the permits. Like other North Carolinians, they would have to buy insurance – something they cannot do now, because they cannot legally register a car – and pass a driving test.

“We believe this is good for the state because the state now is going to know who is driving on our roads,” Melendez said. “People are going to have insurance, so if they have a wreck, they’re going to be able to pay for the damages. We have thousands of uninsured, undocumented drivers out there now.”

Warren said his bill would promote public safety. The permits would identify these drivers as law-abiding people the police would not have to worry about.

“Law enforcement will be able to focus on the smaller group of people that are here to do hard crime like trafficking, prostitution and other felonies,” Warren said.

Melendez echoed his argument about crime. Immigrants here illegally can be victimized if they are afraid to report criminals to police, fearing that they would risk deportation.

“But these people who have a permit or an ID card will be free to drive and free to speak up,” Melendez said. “If they see crime happening, they’re going to come out and say something.”

Immigrants with the driving permits would not be subject to some of the tough enforcement provisions in the bill, including forfeiture of a vehicle or 24-hour detention while an officer checks their immigration status.

The American Civil Liberties Union charged that Warren’s bill would lead to racial profiling, but Torres-Don shrugged off that concern.

“We can’t afford the rhetoric of a liberal way of thinking because we need to be able to drive,” Torres-Don said. “Racial profiling is happening anyway.”

‘Not a softening’

Torres-Don and Melendez were among the immigrant activists who met with Warren while he drafted the legislation, and they said they would continue talking with him and other Republicans.

“This is not a softening of their stance on immigration,” Torres-Don said. “But they’re willing to entertain compromise. We’ve been disenchanted with the national Democratic Party. The Obama administration approach is pretty much a round-them-up-and-deport-them approach.”

House and Senate leaders have not signaled their reaction to Warren’s sweeping legislation, but immigration reform has not been among the stated priorities of Republican leaders in either chamber.

Warren’s bill includes a long preamble that criticizes the Obama administration from a different angle, accusing federal authorities of failing to enforce and strengthen immigration laws. Rep. Frank Iler, a Republican from Brunswick County who signed on as a co-sponsor, said he expected that the legislation would attract criticism from all sides.

“There’s things in the bill that every group is going to like, and things every group is going to hate,” Iler said. “You put together a compromise and try to do whatever you can legally do to defend the state from the failed policy of the federal government, and we’re trying to do the best we can for our citizens.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/

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