RALEIGH Thousands of North Carolina immigrants who are in the United States illegally would have a chance to become legal drivers under sweeping legislation proposed Wednesday in the General Assembly – but the state also could make their lives harder with new restrictions, stepped-up immigration enforcement and tougher treatment in the jails and the courts.
Four House Republicans led by Rep. Harry Warren of Salisbury filed a bill that would offer restricted driver’s permits to “undocumented aliens” not in the country legally if they had lived in North Carolina for a year.
They would have to submit to criminal background checks. Their driving permits would include images of their thumbprints.
Echoing provisions of an Arizona law that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld last year, Warren’s bill also would authorize police to check the immigration status of anyone they stop or arrest – and to detain them for 24 hours – “where reasonable suspicion exists that the person … is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States.”
The bill sponsors called their legislation the “RECLAIM NC Act,” short for the “Reasonable Enactment of Comprehensive Legislation Addressing Immigration Matters in North Carolina Act.” They added a long preamble rebuking the federal government for failing to enforce immigration laws, and criticizing federal courts for limiting state powers on immigration matters.
An estimated 325,000 people live illegally in the state. Advocates on both sides of the issue have known for weeks that Warren and other legislators were drafting proposals that would combine driving privileges with new restrictions. Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Durham Democrat, offered more generous terms for driver’s permits in a bill filed last week.
“We now have bills from both sides of the aisle that aim to make sure all drivers in North Carolina have a license,” said Dan Rearick, director of Uniting N.C., a nonprofit that promotes harmony between foreign-born and U.S.-born Americans. “I’ve heard from law enforcement, pastors and business owners who want to see licenses for all, but I’m not sure folks see eye to eye on how that should be done.”
Warren’s bill also would:
• Reduce prospects for pretrial release on bail of “undocumented aliens” charged with violent felonies, other serious criminal cases and traffic violations.
• Require any “undocumented alien prisoner” to repay the state for the cost of incarceration. It was not clear whether this requirement for reimbursement would include cases where the prisoner was not found guilty of a crime.
• Make it a felony to possess a phony driver’s license or to use someone else’s license. It would still be only a misdemeanor if the card was used by an underage person to buy alcohol or cigarettes.
• Make it a felony to make or sell a phony government ID card, in most cases.
• Require employers who contract with public agencies to check new employees’ immigration status with the federal government’s E-Verify system.
• Put tight restrictions on the types of documents that can be used to confirm a person’s identity or residency with any government agency. A matricula consular or other document issued by a foreign consulate or embassy would not be accepted. And no other ID cards issued by any person, organization or agency would be accepted unless it was expressly authorized by the General Assembly.
One section of the bill, without reference to immigrants or aliens, would give the state new power to seize and sell automobiles in cases where someone was driving without a license or without liability insurance.
The legislation drew sharp criticism from both sides of the immigration issue.
Ron Woodard of N.C. Listen, which pushes for stronger limits on immigration, said the House Republicans were helping unlawful residents at the expense of unemployed citizens.
“Instead of our state working to help citizens get jobs and making sure they’re protected from letting illegal immigrants take their jobs, we have the N.C. House more concerned with illegal immigrants having an easier time getting to a job that doesn’t belong to them,” Woodard said. “To call it a ‘reclaim’ act is the most ridiculous thing of all.”
Immigrant advocates split
Marty Rosenbluth, a Durham lawyer who represents immigrants in the state courts, said he didn’t think many people would seek a driver’s permit under the terms of the legislation.
“It gives people relief from being arrested for driving without a license,” Rosenbluth said. “Other than that, I would be hesitant to tell clients to go ahead and apply. Because other parts of the bill make it clear they can arrest you just for being here without the proper papers. It’s just more vindictive tea-party immigrant bashing.”
Raul Pinto, a staff attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina, described the bill as “an anti-immigration law bucking the national trend.”
“Our general sense is that it has taken advantage of a community that needs to be able to drive,” Pinto said. “Many of them live in rural areas where there is no public transportation. This is an Arizona-type, ‘show me your papers’-type law.”
Some immigrant advocates took a more favorable view.
Those who have closely documented the growth of the immigrant community in North Carolina call the legislation historic, not just because of the profound impacts to grant driving privileges to those here illegally, but also because of its source. Republicans have been seen as adversaries of the immigrant community, said Rafael Prieto, an editor and columnist with Que Pasa Mi Gente, a Spanish-language newspaper in Charlotte.
Warren has invited Latino leaders to a meeting in Raleigh on Thursday. Prieto said the legislation could improve relations between Latinos and the Republican Party.
“This would have been impossible two years ago to even think about,” Prieto said. “At the time, the environment in the state was poisonous and against the immigrant community.”
Warren’s bill comes just a few weeks after the state Division of Motor Vehicles began issuing driver’s licenses to young immigrants participating in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects them from deportation for two years. The participants were brought into the country illegally as children or stayed here illegally after their visas expired.
State government and local law enforcement officials say the licenses will make the roads safer – in a state where one out of every seven accidents involves someone driving without a license, and frequently without insurance.
‘Accountability and safety’
“It’s really about accountability and safety,” Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said last week at a state Board of Transportation meeting. He was speaking of the deferred-action program, which started March 25.
“Many of the individuals who are obtaining licenses have mentioned, ‘I’ve been driving,’” Tata said. “So now they’ve taken the test, they’ve got the insurance and now they’ve got a license.”
DMV has issued licenses to more than 1,500 teens and young adults enrolled in the federal program.
Several sheriffs endorsed Tata’s decision in February to issue licenses for immigrants who have received work permits in the deferred-action program. Eddie Caldwell, a spokesman for the N.C. Sheriffs Association, said Wednesday that many sheriffs sat down with Warren last week and saw a draft of the legislation and that the association decided to take no position on the bill.
Warren could not be reached Wednesday for comment. Spokespersons for Gov. Pat McCrory, House Speaker Thom Tillis, Senate President Phil Berger and Tata declined comment or did not respond to requests for comment.
North Carolina would become the fifth state to grant driving privileges to those who are unable to prove legal residency – joining New Mexico, Washington state, Illinois and Utah. California and Maryland are considering similar measures.
North Carolina changed its laws in 2006 to block those in the country illegally from renewing their licenses. This came after several years when state leaders made it easy to get a license so that all drivers, regardless of their immigration status, had insurance and understood driving laws. As a result, North Carolina became a magnet for immigrants who came here from other states to get driver’s licenses.
Warren’s legislation seeks to avoid a repeat of that experience. Its proposed driver’s permits would not be available to immigrants who move to North Carolina after April 1 of this year.
Reporter Franco Ordoñez in Washington contributed.
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