Politics & Government

NC House panel endorses immigrant driving permits to ‘document the undocumented’

After hearing qualms from the Highway Patrol and opposition from Gov. Pat McCrory, a House Finance Committee Tuesday approved legislation to identify North Carolina residents who are in the U.S. illegally and allow them to drive legally.

The bill, now headed to the House floor, would let the state issue ID cards and restricted driving permits for tens of thousands of immigrants.

“What this does is document the undocumented,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Wake County Republican. “We would actually know who somebody is and where they are.”

Immigrants who now cannot drive legally would be eligible for one-year driving permits after submitting to criminal background checks, paying in advance for insurance coverage and passing state driving tests. Applicants would bear the program’s cost by paying an estimated $60 fee to a private fingerprinting company and an estimated $60 fee to the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

A spokesman for McCrory said the governor opposes the legislation.

“He is concerned with the provision providing driving privileges to those who are in this country unlawfully,” Ryan Minto, McCrory’s legislative lobbyist, told the committee.

The Finance Committee voted 22-11 to approve House Bill 328. Its sponsor, Rep. Harry Warren, said he will schedule a House floor vote “when I am fairly confident that I know where the Senate’s position is on it.”

Although several committee members said they doubted the bill could survive in the Senate or overcome McCrory’s opposition, Warren was optimistic.

“We’ve seen the governor change his position on bills as they go through the legislative process,” Warren, a Republican from Salisbury, said later. “It still has to go through the Senate. It could be subjected to some changes, and if it is, perhaps one of those changes would be acceptable to the governor.”

House Bill 328 includes punitive measures intended as incentives for immigrants to apply for permits. If immigrants here illegally were caught driving without permits, police could put them in jail and seize their cars.

Col. Bill Grey, commander of the state Highway Patrol, worried about extra work for state troopers.

“When you’re impounding every … car with no insurance showing, that is a lot of man hours to sit there and wait 45 minutes to an hour and a half for a wrecker to come get the vehicle,” Grey told the committee. “And then, of course, you have to insure the safety of the driver and the passengers you’re removing from that vehicle. At 3 o’clock in the morning in rural North Carolina, there’s very little that you can do for those people to insure their safety.”

But Fred Baggett, speaking for the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, said the bill would help law enforcement officers identify people here illegally.

“There are tens of thousands of drivers every day on the streets and highways of North Carolina without valid identification,” Baggett said. “Police officers who investigate crimes, victimization and so forth need identification for perpetrators, for victims, for witnesses, and for many other reasons.”

Rep. Bert Jones, a Rockingham Republican, echoed other opponents when he said the legislation offered undeserved benefits for people “who are committing a crime by being illegally in the United States.”

Supporters blamed the federal government but said North Carolina must face problems related to the presence of an estimated 325,000 immigrants here illegally.

“This is a conversation we have to have,” said Rep. Mike Hager, a Rutherford County Republican. “It’s not something that’s going to go away. It’s not something the federal government is willing to fix, it looks like.”