Patty Hanneman first became aware of the problem from families in a trailer park near the church she pastors in Hillsborough.
Hispanic children wait by themselves for the school bus, because their parents fear driving because they don’t have licenses.
High school students, she learned, do not participate in extra-curricular activities because, again, parents don’t want to take the chance of being stopped by police when picking up their children.
“There’s fear among the parents and the kids,” said Rev. Hanneman, minister at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Hillsborough. “It felt to me that this whole issue is really destructive of families. It keeps children from participating fully in school; it keeps parents from participating as neighbors and friends in their communities.”
The problem is faced by thousands of Hispanic residents of Orange County who cannot get driver’s licenses but have to drive for work, school, shopping, health care and other functions of everyday life that the rest of us take for granted.
Court records tell the story. Since 2008, 5,508 citations have been issued to Hispanic people in Orange and Chatham counties for driving without a license, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. That’s 73 percent of all no-license charges during that period. Hispanic residents are bearing a disproportionate share of driver’s license enforcement, and they understandably feel targeted because of their ethnicity.
The consequences are significant. Court fees for a ticket are $238, and since they can never get a license, it’s not unusual for individuals to rack up multiple fees. One calculation is that Hispanics locally have paid $1.3 million in fees for driving without a license since 2008.
The greater worry for undocumented people is that even walking into the courthouse will expose them to immigration problems, and often they pay high fees to lawyers to handle the citations and keep them out of court.
“People can get 1, 2, 3, 10, 15 tickets, but it won’t change anything,” said Luis Royo. “They will need to drive and they will keep getting tickets.”
As director of Hispanic Ministries at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, Deacon Royo works with some 1,200 Hispanic families who attend the church. “We have a significant number of people – thousands living in Orange and Chatham counties – who are members of our community but they can’t fully participate in community life. We are sending them into the shadows. That’s not good for the community as a whole.”
About 25,000 Hispanics live in Orange and Chatham counties, according to most recent Census projections.
People can get 1, 2, 3, 10, 15 tickets, but it won’t change anything. They will need to drive and they will keep getting tickets.
Hanneman and Royo are working with Justice United, a social justice advocacy group, to address the driver’s license issue by talking to local law enforcement and court authorities. A goal is to get police to use their discretion not to issue tickets if driving without a license is the only infraction when a driver is stopped.
Another initiative is to get police to recognize so-called “Faith IDs,” which are issued to Hispanic people who have proof of country of origin and local residency and participate in law enforcement seminars. Some 800 IDs have been issued locally since the program was started by El Centro Hispano in January. Justice United leaders say police departments in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department are supportive of their efforts and are recognizing Faith IDs.
Also sympathetic is District Attorney James Woodall, who said he is looking for ways to lessen the impact on Hispanics when they go to court. He is working on a comprehensive solution, he said, that could give deferral or waivers of fees to Hispanic drivers if they participate in safety or cultural assimilation programs.
“We have a population of people who can never come into compliance, no matter what they do,” he said. “We’d like to think of a way to help them out.”
Jennifer Galassi, legal counsel to Sheriff Charles Blackwood, says he encourages deputies to use discretion not to issue citations for driving without a license when the person is otherwise driving responsibly. She said Blackwood would support the state issuing driver’s licenses for undocumented people.
And that would be the ultimate solution. Twelve states currently allow unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses if they have otherwise valid identification. That was the practice in North Carolina until 2006, when it was removed by the state legislature, in response to 9/11 and homeland security concerns.
It would be an uphill battle to restore driving rights to undocumented Hispanics, given the current anti-immigrant sentiment political climate. Last spring, state Sen. Buck Newton tried to kill the Faith ID program in North Carolina as a way to keep local law enforcement from “harboring illegal aliens,” as Newton put it.
The good news – the bill went nowhere, in part because local law enforcement supported the ID program for improving relations between immigrants and police. Newton this month was defeated in the race for attorney general, one of the few Republicans statewide who lost on Election Day. Maybe that’s a good sign.
Ted Vaden, a former editor and publisher of the Chapel Hill News, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.