RALEIGH — Bowing to concerns from Gov. Pat McCrory and fellow Republican lawmakers, state Rep. Harry Warren pulled back Tuesday on a comprehensive immigration package that would have combined driving permits for people here illegally with stringent, Arizona-style provisions to change how immigrants are treated by judges, jailers and police.
The House gave preliminary approval, 84-29, to an amended bill that asks the state Department of Public Safety to study most of Warren’s proposals. He said he hopes to generate enough support to bring the full legislation back for consideration by the General Assembly next year.
“The bill is not dead,” said Warren, of Salisbury. “The governor, quite frankly, hasn’t seen the bill before. And he has some concerns about different provisions of it. I believe this is a more prudent approach to take at this time.”
It’s the second straight legislative session that Republicans punted on immigration legislation, an issue important to their conservative supporters, and it comes amid the deadlock in Washington on the same topic.
The U.S. Senate’s vote to approve a bipartisan immigration overhaul split the North Carolina delegation, with Democrat Kay Hagan in favor and Republican Richard Burr against.
State House Speaker Thom Tillis is running for the U.S. Senate in 2014, hoping to challenge Hagan if he can survive a Republican primary. Tillis said recently he would have voted against the federal immigration legislation. A spokesman did not respond to questions about where Tillis stood on Warren’s original bill.
Warren said he had bipartisan backing for his ideas, including the support of the state’s leading business lobby, the N.C. Chamber of Commerce. But he also faced strident opposition from both sides of the immigration divide.
Conservative advocates for tighter controls had attacked Warren’s cornerstone proposal to issue special driving permits or ID cards to as many as 300,000 people referred to in the legislation as “undocumented aliens.”
Anyone who got a driving permit would have to undergo criminal background checks, provide proof of one-year residency in the state, and pay in advance for a year of car insurance coverage. Warren contended that it would promote law enforcement and public safety by removing unidentified and uninsured drivers from state roads.
Reluctant to copy other states
Warren helped lead a select committee formed by Tillis to study tougher immigration laws in 2012. But it dissolved abruptly in December without making any legislative recommendations, an indication that Republicans on the committee were confounded by the contentious issue and reluctant to copy other states by cracking down on illegal immigrants.
Warren appeared frustrated at this second stunted attempt for tougher state-based immigration laws. A few Latino and immigrant advocates backed the bill, but it was criticized by other immigrant and civil rights advocates for provisions that would provide harsher treatment for many immigrants.
Police would be empowered to check the immigration status of people they stopped or arrested and to jail them for 24 hours while making the check. Immigrants here illegally would have a harder time earning bail and would be at risk for having their automobiles seized. If they were convicted of crimes, they would be required to repay the state for the cost of their incarceration.
Ron Woodard, director of N.C. LISTEN, which lobbies for stronger controls on immigration, said the House should have approved these measures but was right to put off consideration of the proposed driving permits.
“We’re happy, on one hand, that we didn’t do something incredibly stupid,” Woodard said. “We would have been much happier if we had an enforcement-only bill, which we believe is what our citizens want.”
ACLU: Bill needs more study
Raul Pinto, a staff attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina, said he was glad legislators agreed to study the bill.
“It would have legalized racial profiling in our state, and we were concerned about that,” Pinto said. “The driving permit was problematic as well, having to admit that you were unlawfully in the United States before you could get it. And someone who could not afford the permit – you have to buy a year’s worth of insurance – would be subject to all the other punitive parts of the bill.”
A final House vote is expected Wednesday, and then the study bill goes to the Senate. Warren and co-sponsors said it would give state agencies an opportunity to see how the proposals would affect law enforcement, social services and business.
“They have never been asked to give us a detailed analysis of what the impact would be by having tens of thousands of uninsured drivers suddenly become insured,” Warren said. “What impact will that have on insurance rates? What impact will it have on insurance claims, as far as accidents go, things like that?”
Although his bill would give new powers to police and the courts, Warren said it was not an immigration enforcement measure. He said that’s a federal responsibility, and his bill includes language chastising Washington for being soft on the issue.
Speaking on the House floor, Warren acknowledged that Congress “is making overtures” to reform immigration and guest-worker laws.
“But, in the interim, this bill seeks to address criminal activity by folks in the state illegally,” Warren said.
Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier