Local News

Immigration Debate Focuses On DWI Fatalities

Posted November 10, 2006

— Two fatal crashes in recent weeks involving drivers suspected of being in the country illegally have immigration-reform advocates calling on state lawmakers to take action.

  • A wreck last Sunday in Durham killed a woman and injured her husband. Carlos Hernandez, a suspected illegal immigrant, has been charged in the case.

    On Oct. 27, two North Carolina State University students and a teenager died in a head-on collision near Sanford. Pastor Sanchez, who also is believed to be in the U.S. illegally, has been charged in the case.

    "These victims would be alive if our border was secure and our immigration laws were enforced," said William Gheen, president of Americans For Legal Immigration, a political-action committee.

    The group has called on the state attorney general's office and state lawmakers to track drunken driving deaths involving illegal immigrants.

    A study by the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found Hispanic drivers involved in crashes were three times more likely to be drunk than white or black drivers.

    Last year, 18 percent of the 76,000 drunken-driving arrests in North Carolina involved Hispanic drivers. The ethnic group makes up 10 percent of the state's population.

    "It's clear across the country -- there's a direct connection between drinking and driving deaths and the illegal alien community," Gheen said. "(We need to) crack down on illegal aliens in this state and do everything we can to prevent these preventable deaths."

    Federal legislation has been filed to make driving while intoxicated an automatic deportable offense for illegal immigrants.

    El Pueblo, a Hispanic advocacy group, has launched a multimedia education campaign to warn Spanish-speaking drivers of the dangers of drinking and driving. The state Highway Patrol also is participating in the educational program.

    Tony Asion, a former police officer who now directs public-safety programs for El Pueblo, said the emotional immigration debate clouds concerns over drunken driving.

    "Anytime a Latino does anything that's wrong, it's going to come down on the rest of us," Asion said. "It's not a Latino issue. It's a drunk-driving issue, and that's what we have to deal with."

    He said many young Hispanic men turn to alcohol to deal with cultural differences and boredom.

    "They're learning how to drive. They're learning how to survive," he said.

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