A North Carolina bill that would grant driving privileges to immigrants living in the state illegally is driving a complex and layered debate within state borders.
The bill, titled the “RECLAIM NC Act,” offers a mix of changes – some that immigrants’ advocates want and others that they fear. It would allow people here illegally to obtain driver’s licenses – a step that could improve highway safety and help with identification issues. But it also grants sweeping powers to law enforcement officers to detain people suspected of being in the U.S. illegally.
In recent weeks, immigrant advocates have worked to get the word out about the omnibus bill – often described as “Show Me Your Papers”-style legislation. As Republicans and Democrats appear to be reaching agreement on immigration at the national level, they contend the North Carolina bill, with parts modeled after the controversial Arizona law, is likely to reignite fights over the rights of undocumented immigrants.
“At a time when faith, business, and community leaders are coming together to push for immigration reform at the federal level, this proposal is a step backward for North Carolina,” said Angeline Echeverría, executive director of El Pueblo.
Immigration rights attorneys say a provision in the state bill, which could come up for a vote late next week, could put North Carolina employers unwittingly in danger of federal crackdowns.
Trying to sort through the consequences of the bill – intended or not – has vexed immigration advocates and the many nonprofit organizations that track such issues.
The Charlotte-based Latin American Coalition favors restoring driving privileges for illegal immigrants, but has major concerns about racial profiling. The organization has taken the middle road, offering neither support nor opposition, with hopes of working with legislators to bring amendments.
An outspoken member of the NC DREAM Team, a group representing undocumented immigrants who came here as children, and the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, a business advocacy organization, support the bill. But some of the state’s conservative residents argue that immigrants here illegally are breaking the law and should not be afforded driving privileges.
Other groups opposing the legislation include the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina, the North Carolina Immigrants Rights Project, the American Civil Liberties Union of NC, Action NC and a member of the Colorado House of Representatives who led a repeal effort of a similar bill in Colorado. The Spanish-language newspaper Que Pasa, based in Raleigh, has issued an editorial against the bill.
Just recently, El Centro Hispano and El Pueblo, two high-profile Latino nonprofit organizations, issued opposition statements. “While access to driving privileges is a top priority for our community, this bill would do far more damage than good,” said Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, president and CEO of El Centro Hispano.
List of concerns
Advocates’ concerns include:
• It would be a requirement, not an option, for undocumented immigrants to get a driving permit or state identification card.
• Immigrants who seek the driving privileges would have to be fingerprinted for the permit, and the permit cards would reveal their immigration status without providing any protection from deportation.
• The costs and residency requirements could severely limit access to permits.
• Law enforcement officers would gain the authority to detain a driver and passengers in a car for up to two hours to determine immigration status, causing widespread concern about the potential for racial profiling.
• People driving without a license or insurance face mandatory seizure and impoundment of their vehicles at the time of the traffic stop.
• The bill creates new categories of offenses for which the courts must presume that undocumented people will be denied bond.
• The bill spells out the responsibilities of North Carolina employers under the E-Verify program – the online check of an employee’s eligibility. Though the measure, described by the N.C. Chamber of Commerce as “middle-of-the-road immigration reform that would ensure a readily available workforce while addressing immigration legality issues …,” exempts employers from state penalties under E-Verify, it sets them up for potential legal trouble with the federal government and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That an employer asked to see and then inspected the special restricted licenses, attorneys say, could be proof positive to federal immigration officials that the employer knew the applicants and employees were undocumented.
“I am sure this was in no way the intent, but this bill gives employers a false sense of security,” said Marty Rosenbluth, a Durham lawyer and executive director of the NC Immigrants Rights Project. “It is a trap, and I’m sure a lot of employers wouldn’t know they were being led into it.”
In North Carolina, an estimated 320,000 immigrants are in the state illegally. Some came here for jobs and educational opportunities for themselves and their children. Others come to be with family and loved ones already here. Others are seeking freedom.
Gregorio Morales, 47, came to this country from Mexico 14 years ago and has lived in North Carolina for six years.
Though Morales, the owner of a landscaping company that employs five people, likes the idea of driving privileges for undocumented residents such as himself, he does not like the RECLAIM NC Act as proposed.
“What they’re trying to do is get more control on undocumented people and get more of them deported,” Morales said Thursday.
But he is encouraged by the reform debate at the national level. “They know the Latino community is a good market,” Morales said. “We are an economic force, we are a political force. They need us, and we need them.”
Bill jabs at feds
The introduction to the RECLAIM NC Act proposed by Rep. Harry Warren, a Salisbury Republican, includes pointed comments about the federal government, saying it “has failed to address the need for enforcement of existing immigration laws or to act decisively to correct, amend and reform existing immigration procedures, and policies.” But Warren insisted Thursday that his bill does not attempt to shift immigration enforcement to the state. “It’s a law enforcement and public safety bill,” he said.
Warren acknowledged the bill’s similarities to the Arizona law that allows officers to stop immigrants and ask their status.
But the North Carolina bill differs, Warren said. It does not require law enforcement officers to do such checks. “We wanted to simply give law enforcement that authority; we wanted them to have that tool in the tool box if they needed it,” he said.
Warren also acknowledged that North Carolina business owners who hire people with the limited driving permits could face federal immigration crackdowns, as lawyers contend.
The measure, as currently written, exempts employers from state penalties under the E-Verify program if they require employees to show them special restricted driving permits the state wants undocumented workers to carry. Warren said the net effect could be that employers turn away illegal immigrants.
“That’s a part of the bill that requires people to think,” Warren said.
Rosenbluth, the immigration lawyer in Durham, not only worries about federal troubles for employers who check driving permits but also the potential for racial profiling.
“If it were not for the driver’s permit provision, it would be crystal clear that this bill is just another copycat bill of the anti-immigrant bills that have been passed in Arizona and elsewhere,” Rosenbluth concluded in a letter to N.C. House Democrats. “While I do respect those in the community that have fought long and hard for licenses for undocumented individuals, the risks that this bill brings do not outweigh the benefits.”
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