Raleigh, N.C. — When a bill that would allow immigrants in the United States illegally to obtain limited driving privileges cleared the House Finance Committee Tuesday morning, Gregorio Morales and Carmen Rodriguez were among the folks sitting in the back of the room smiling.
Morales, who is originally from Mexico, has lived in the United States for 17 years – seven of those in North Carolina – and would be one of the people lining up for the new identity cards if House Bill 328 becomes law.
"I am a small-business owner. I have a landscape company," Morales said shortly after the vote. He and his five employees would all benefit from the bill, he said.
"When you're driving without a license, you always feel fear," he said.
Rodriguez said she routinely drives without a license and without insurance to get her three children to school and herself to a job.
"I drive with fear. My kids are scared of police officers," Rodriguez said through an interpreter.
House Bill 328 would create a "restricted ID" for undocumented residents in North Carolina that would look different from a standard driver's license. People obtaining one of the permits would need to undergo fingerprinting and background checks and prove their identity. Driving privileges would be attached to the restricted ID once applicants pass a state driving test and obtain liability insurance coverage.
While the bill cleared committee on a 22-11 vote, the measure is controversial, splitting Republicans in the House who are divided between encouraging people who are on the road anyway to get insurance and those who say the state should not provide public benefits to undocumented workers.
"What we want to do in this undocumented community is to separate those who are engaged in criminal activity from those who otherwise are not engaged in unlawful activity," said sponsor Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan.
"I believe they are committing a crime being illegally present in the United States," said Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, who dialed in on provisions of the bill that would require someone who obtained one of the new driving privilege cards to be fingerprinted and undergo a background check that would ensure they hadn't committed any serious crimes.
Gov. Pat McCrory, also a Republican, sent his legislative liaison to the committee Tuesday to express his disapproval as well.
"He is opposed to this bill," said Ryan Minto. "He (the governor) is concerned with the provision providing driving privileges to people in the country illegally."
During a committee meeting last week, opponents of the bill tried to do away with the driving privilege provision. That amendment, which would have left mainly punitive measures in the bill, failed.
Warren said the bill was meant to provide both a "carrot and stick" to urge drivers to obtain identification and insurance. Roughly 10 states already offer a similar privilege, Warren said, although North Carolina's standards for obtaining the card would be more stringent than most.
Warren and other backers of the bill said that immigration is a federal issue, one the United States government hasn't dealt with efficiently. The result, he said, was an estimated 325,000 undocumented people in North Carolina alone, a situation that has created a hazard on the state's roads.
Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, R-Wake, pointed out that, in the case of an accident involving a driver without insurance, the other driver's insurance bears the cost of damage and medical bills. Part of the insurance premiums drivers pay every month go toward covering such accidents.
"My chief of police urgently asks us to pass this," Stam said.
North Carolina State Highway Patrol Col. William Grey said he was worried the bill could create extra work for the patrol. In particular, it requires the patrol to impound the cars of those caught driving without a privilege card who are here illegally. Impounding a car, he said, takes time.
"That's a lot of man hours," he said.
But other law enforcement groups back the measure. Fred Baggett, a lobbyist for North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, said his group backed the bill because it would help identify those in the community who are currently living and working in the state.
Immigration advocates and watchdogs praised and criticized the committee vote.
"What happened today was, I believe, illegal immigrants got rewarded with two of the things they want when they come here – a legal way to drive and a job," said Ron Woodard, president of NC Listen.
"We believe this is the right step," said Iliana Santillan, a community organizer with El Pueblo, "We just need to work hard and continue working with the community because this will definitely make North Carolina a safer place. It will increase the economy."
The next step for the bill would be the House floor, although it's unclear if and when that vote might happen. Intramural quarrels among House Republicans have stalled a number of controversial bills due to philosophical disagreement and pragmatic political considerations.
During Tuesday's committee hearing, Rep. Mitchell Setzer, R-Catawba, referenced campaign mailers that are a primary weapon in legislative campaigns when he quipped, "This will end up in a mailbox near you."