Raleigh, N.C. — Despite outcry from illegal immigration watchdogs, a House committee on Wednesday easily approved legislation that would grant driving permits to North Carolina residents who are in the U.S. illegally.
House Bill 328 would create a "restricted ID" for the state for undocumented residents who undergo fingerprinting and background checks and prove their identity and state residence.
"This bill has nothing to do with immigration, immigration law or immigration reform," said sponsor Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan. "This is a bill about law enforcement and public safety."
The measure is designed to reduce the risk of identity theft and make it easier for law enforcement to identify criminals through a new state database of undocumented people in North Carolina, Warren said. The bill also would make producing or selling counterfeit identification documents a felony – it is currently a misdemeanor – and prohibit municipalities and nonprofit groups from creating their own ID cards for immigrants.
Driving privileges would be attached to the restricted ID, provided applicants pass a state driving test and obtain liability insurance coverage, but Warren said the document "in no way should be confused with a North Carolina valid driver's license."
Although it would allow holders to drive on North Carolina highways, the restricted ID could not be used as a form of identification to vote, apply for public assistance, access government buildings or board a plane, he said.
Still, several longtime critics of U.S. immigration policy blasted the bill because of the driving privileges portion, saying they had no problem with the rest of the proposal.
"I want you to shut this bill down or take the license provision out of there," said WIlliam Gheen, president of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, noting that advocates worked a decade ago to stop North Carolina from issuing driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.
"It doesn't make any sense as to why someone would be in favor of enforcing immigration laws on the one hand and in the same law be encouraging illegal immigration," said James Johnson, president of North Carolinians For Immigration Reform and Enforcement. "Giving illegal aliens a North Carolina driver's license or permit – or whatever you want to call it – would only encourage more."
Ron Woodard, president of NC Listen, compared the driving permit to giving undocumented residents amnesty.
"Why reward people illegally in our nation with a legal driving permit and help them legally drive to a job that belongs to a citizen?" Woodward asked.
Warren dismissed arguments that the driving permit would attract hordes of immigrants to North Carolina. Thirteen other state offer licenses or driving permits to undocumented residents, he said, but none have the hoops House Bill 328 sets up to obtain one, he said.
"I would go to Maryland, I would go to Illinois to get a driver's license. I wouldn't come to North Carolina and submit to fingerprints and a criminal background check for a one-year permit," he said.
"Driver's licenses don't motivate immigration; economics do," he continued. "People don't sneak into the United States to get a driver's license, and they don't go to Arizona or Florida to get driver's licenses. They go there to work."
There are 90,000 to 110,000 undocumented immigrants in the state who are old enough to drive, but few have passed a driving test or can be held financially responsible if they are involved in a crash, Warren said.
"There's nothing wrong with issuing a permit. It's acknowledging the fact that we have people driving without insurance, without being vetted, without being tested," he said. "To recognize that and for us, as a legislative body, to do nothing about it is, in my opinion, a dereliction of duty."
Fred Baggett, legal counsel for the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, said his group favors the bill because it would reduce the fraudulent IDs – or complete lack of identification – that officers now deal with on the streets.
The bill passed the House Judiciary I Committee on a voice vote with little debate and now heads to the House Finance Committee before going to the floor.