Immigration bill tied to driving privileges
Some North Carolina lawmakers want to extend driving privileges to those living in North Carolina illegally while adding new enforcement measures, including a provision mirroring an Arizona law that authorizes law enforcement to check the legal status of people stopped for other legitimate reasons.
The bill, filed by four House Republicans, creates a separate class of restricted driver's permits and allows law enforcement to detain people suspected of living illegally in the U.S. for up to 24 hours following a stop or arrest to check their immigration status.
The legislation comes as the U.S. Senate looks ready to take up its own bipartisan legislation following a push from GOP leaders to moderate its tone toward the Latino community. Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, and a primary sponsor, called the measure a "public safety" bill that strikes a balanced approach in an interview Thursday.
"To recognize that people here illegally are driving uninsured and untested and to do nothing about it is irresponsible," he said. "The federal government has tied our hands in so many ways with how we can address the illegal population, but this is one way we can."
The restricted licenses come with special identification numbers, a vertical format set apart from the usual horizontal design and a statement declaring the permit can't be used to verify legal residency. Applicants have to submit to criminal background checks, provide a passport or federal tax form, proof of insurance and proof of at least a year's residency in North Carolina that began prior to April 1, 2013.
The bill also criminalizes producing false ID or using someone else's identification, with exceptions for attempts to purchase alcohol or cigarettes underage; bans the use of consular identification cards to establish identity or residency; restricts pre-trial release of immigrants in the country without permission in many cases and requires them to pay for the costs of incarceration. Under the bill, public contractors would have to verify the work eligibility of employees.
An estimated 325,000 immigrants in the country without permission lived in North Carolina as of 2010, up from 210,000 the decade before, according to the Pew Research Center. A proposal granting restricted IDs secured initial approval in the Colorado state Senate Wednesday. Four other states already issue some form of driver's permit to those who don't have permission to be in the U.S.
Immigration advocates reached Wednesday called the bill a sign of progress but remained skeptical about some provisions.
Maudia Melendez, director of Charlotte-based Jesus Ministry, said the bill helps bring immigrants "out of the shadows," but provisions such as the restriction against using consular ID present concerns.
"It's going to be big for our community, but at the same time I don't want them to give me this just to take away the rest of my freedom," she said. "I think what's going to happen is good — not just for the immigrants but for the rest of the state."
Melendez said she recognizes the provision allowing for status checks during police stops opens the door for greater profiling and eventual deportation, especially given the unique design of the restricted IDs, but after a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the measure, it's here to stay. Her group has pushed for driving privileges for years and helped craft the North Carolina bill.
Although anyone holding a restricted permit could be detained under the proposed law, it's designed to capture those who have committed serious felonies, Warren said.
"That's who we're targeting in this bill, not the guy who has overstayed his student visa or the guy picking vegetables for us," he said.
Ron Woodard, director of conservative immigration reform group NC Listen, said it's a misconception that most immigrants work in agriculture, and with the state's unemployment rate topping 9 percent, lawmakers shouldn't make it easier for them to find work.
"The bigger point we'd make is it looks like the North Carolina House wants to make it easier for an illegal immigrant to get to a job that should go to a citizen," he said.
The ACLU came out firmly against the bill, calling the goal of licensing immigrants worthwhile but noting the bill applies only to those living in the state prior to April 1. Sarah Preston, policy director at ACLU of North Carolina, argued the bill as a whole sanctions racial profiling and ratchets up penalties against one particular group that is mostly law-abiding.
"I think the biggest concern is it's really going to increase scrutiny — all the provisions together — against people law enforcement perceives to look foreign," she said.