RALEIGH — While legislators prepare for hot debate on an immigration bill that would combine strict enforcement measures with driving privileges for people here illegally, North Carolina already is giving drivers licenses to thousands of young immigrants who would be covered by the proposed new measures.
The Division of Motor Vehicles issues the licenses to teens and young adults who have received work permits though the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which postpones deportation for immigrants who entered the country illegally as children or stayed illegally after their visas expired.
I got my license a month ago, and its a good thing, said Ivan Benavides, 20, of Raleigh, who is looking for work and taking business classes at Wake Tech. I dont have to be asking people for rides now. I can just drive myself.
The deferred-action licenses were the focus of controversy earlier this year. Conservatives, including Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, argued that the state was wrong to grant driving privileges to people who werent legal residents. Immigrant advocates complained about a red-letter label on the license stating that the driver has NO LAWFUL STATUS in the United States.
But the licenses have been popular with young immigrants since they became available in March.
DMV has issued 7,790 deferred-action licenses, permits and ID cards so far, including 705 in the busiest county, Wake. The license is valid for two years, until the federal work permit expires.
Im glad to hear they seem to be issuing them quickly, and we havent heard any problems, said Sarah Preston, state policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Maudia Melendez, director of the Charlotte-based Jesus Ministries, has lobbied for two years to restore driving privileges that were available to unlawful residents here until 2006. The deferred-action licenses are given only to young immigrants who have been vetted in federal background checks, she said.
This is a great program not only for the kids but for the state, Melendez said. These kids that are getting deferred action are good students. They are not in trouble. They are the cream of the crop, and we need to pay attention to them.
The contention over these licenses subsided after Rep. Harry Warren, a Salisbury Republican, announced more far-reaching proposals in his RECLAIM NC immigration package in April. It could allow driving permits for as many as 300,000 undocumented aliens of all ages. That feature is praised by diverse groups including Latino and law enforcement leaders and criticized by advocates for stronger limits on immigration.
Warrens bill also would provide for tougher treatment of immigrants in the jails and the courts. Echoing provisions of an Arizona law, the bill would authorize police to check the immigration status of people they stop or arrest, and to detain them for up to 24 hours.
Warren said Monday he hopes his bill will get a House floor vote in the next week or so, and then move to the Senate. He called it a law enforcement, public safety bill and said it has tougher provisions than comparable proposals to extend driving privileges in other states.
Our bill is much more protective for the citizens of North Carolina, and puts much stronger requirements on those who would get driving permits, Warren said.
Immigrant advocates who endorsed the deferred-action licenses are divided over Warrens bill. The ACLU and other civil rights groups are lobbying against it.
We see a really strong need to get licenses to people, but we dont want to see people in the undocumented community become targets for harassment, the ACLUs Preston said. Theres this Arizona-style provision that basically condones racial profiling, and they want to make that part of the North Carolina statutes.
Melendez of Jesus Ministries said the bill could be improved, but the legislature should approve it.
Benavides sees both sides of the issue. Hes glad to have a license to drive, but he doesnt like having to explain the NO LAWFUL STATUS label printed under his name.
Thats the only thing I dont like, Benavides said. Its like telling people youre illegal just by showing them your ID.
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