Raleigh, N.C. — Legislation that would provide North Carolina driver's licenses to people in the U.S. illegally while also authorizing detainment measures similar to those used in Arizona passed its first test in the General Assembly on Wednesday.
A House judiciary committee passed House Bill 786, dubbed the RECLAIM NC Act, and it now goes to the House Finance Committee.
"This is about law enforcement, this is about public safety and, yes, it does touch on the illegally present community," said sponsor Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan.
The bill would require residents in the country illegally to pursue a restricted driver's license and auto insurance – the Division of Motor Vehicles began issuing licenses in March to young people in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – and allow police to detain people suspected of lacking documentation for up to 24 hours to verify their legal status.
Some of the bill's other law enforcement measures were softened before the measure was presented to the committee. Restrictions on bond release would no longer apply to minor traffic violations and drug possession, and Democrats successfully pushed for including simple assault, disturbing the peace, public drunkenness and other minor crimes as well.
Also, those living in the country illegally could post secured bond when charged with a felony or more serious misdemeanor, and they would have to pay for their incarceration costs after arrest only in cases resulting in a conviction.
Although the bill no longer requires law enforcement to detain people, immigration advocates say they remain concerned that the bill's language gives officers too much discretion and could result in racial profiling.
An estimated 325,000 immigrants in the country without permission lived in North Carolina as of 2010, up from 210,000 a decade earlier.
"We are open to looking at some type of qualifying language where it may be, if they stopped somebody in the commission of a crime, that gives them cause then to investigate even further," Warren said.
He said the intent is to go after the criminals who don't belong in North Carolina – or the U.S.
Some advocates say it's likely upwards of 200,000 people in the country illegally will come out of the shadows if concerns are addressed.
"We are very optimistic now more than ever," said Maudia Melendez of Jesus Ministries, a Charlotte-based advocacy group.
Ron Cox, president of Jesus Ministries, pointed to a driver's license as a ticket to freedom from fear.
"With this permit, I would not be questioned of my status," Cox said. "They would already know they've already taken my fingerprints. They know I'm not wanted by the law enforcement. So, therefore, I wouldn't fear taking my child to school. I wouldn't fear going to his baseball game or another church function."