State Politics

House panel OKs driving privileges for immigrants in NC illegally

A Rowan County legislator has revived a proposal for a state law that would grant driving privileges to immigrants living in North Carolina illegally, if they agreed to be fingerprinted and undergo criminal background checks.

The “Highway Safety/Citizens Protection Act,” sponsored by Rep. Harry Warren, a Republican from Salisbury, made it through an N.C. House judiciary committee on Wednesday, but not without criticism.

Proponents say the bill would lead to safer roads and create a more uniform system for acceptable ID cards in immigrant communities.

Critics describe the measure as another step toward amnesty that would encourage, not discourage, immigrants here illegally to settle in North Carolina.

“This bill, I want to say, has nothing to do with immigration, immigration law or immigration reform,” Warren told an overflow crowd at the meeting.

An estimated 325,000 people live in North Carolina illegally, Warren said, and some 90,000 to 110,000 of them are of driving age.

Under the proposal, immigrants could apply for a restricted driver’s permit that would be good for a year. They must have records clean of criminal violations and pass a written and road test conducted by the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

Applicants would have to be fingerprinted and supply information about their legal status. That information could not be used to seek deportation, nor could it be released from confidential files unless required by law to do so, Warren said. The ID card, which would note the lack of legal status, could not be used to vote, board a plane, enter a federal building or obtain public assistance, he added.

In North Carolina, there has been polarized debate for years about whether immigrants here illegally should have driving privileges.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when many immigrants were recruited to work in agricultural jobs and on construction-boom projects, state leaders purposely made it easy to get a license. They wanted to ensure that all drivers, regardless of status, understood driving laws and had insurance.

The result, immigration critics and advocates acknowledge, was that thousands of unauthorized immigrants traveled to North Carolina from New York and other Northeastern cities solely to get a driver’s license because North Carolina didn’t require proof of legal status.

Then a 2006 North Carolina law made it impossible for those in the country illegally to renew their licenses. In recent years, some legislators have tried to soften the effect, acknowledging that as a result of the 2006 law, many were driving illegally and uninsured.

The Warren bill comes two years after North Carolina roiled with controversy over a state plan to issue “pink licenses” for young immigrants who were in this country illegally, but had been granted federal protections from deportation. The suggestion was scrapped after immigrant advocates described the pink-striped IDs as “modern-day scarlet letters.”

William Gheen, president of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, suggested scrapping the new proposal on Wednesday, arguing that it encouraged illegal immigration rather than tightening restrictions he wanted better enforced. “I want you to shut this down or take the license provision out,” he said.

Ron Woodard, president of NC Listen, a group advocating for stricter enforcement of immigration law, opposed the new proposal. “Why reward people illegally in our nation with a legal driving permit and help them legally drive to a job that belongs to a citizen?” he asked legislative committee members.

James Johnson, president of North Carolinians for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, added: “Giving illegal aliens a North Carolina driver’s license or permit – or whatever you want to call it – would only encourage more.”

Warren disagreed. Thirteen other states, he said, offer licenses or driving privileges to immigrants here illegally, and criminal background checks and fingerprinting are not required in some of those places.

“I would go to Maryland, I would go to Illinois to get a driver’s license,” Warren responded. “I wouldn’t come to North Carolina and submit to fingerprints and a criminal background check for a one-year permit.”

Warren submitted a similar proposal two years ago that never made it beyond committee consideration. He urged his colleagues to think of the bill as a safety act that also attempts to tamp down identification theft and fake ID use. The proposal also authorizes the impoundment of vehicles for people caught driving without a license and without automobile insurance.

“Driver’s licenses don’t motivate immigration; economics do,” Warren said.

Though there were several audible “nos” when the bill was put to a vote, the committee chairman said the “ayes” had it. There was no show of hands for the legislators for and against the measure. The bill is still subject to review by other committees, finance being one, before it could go up for a vote in the full House.

Maudia Melendez, head of Jesus Ministry, a Charlotte-based advocacy group, has spent years lobbying for immigrant licenses. She was among the several dozen supporters in the halls outside the Wednesday meeting.

“What this bill does is hold the immigrant community accountable,” Melendez said. “It will deter criminals from actually moving to North Carolina. You’re closing the doors because many can go to other states and get a driver’s license. They’re not going to come here and get fingerprinted and go through criminal background checks every year.”

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Twitter: @AnneBlythe1