Raleigh, N.C. — After more than a year of work, House leaders have given up on a bill that would have made big changes to state immigration laws, including allowing driving permits for people in the country illegally.
House Bill 786 was turned into a study bill by a floor amendment during debate Tuesday.
The bill would have allowed police to verify anyone's immigration status "where there is reasonable suspicion that the person is not lawfully present in the U.S.," said sponsor Rep. Jonathan Jordan, R-Ashe.
It also would have increased penalties for the manufacture or possession of fake IDs and for identity theft, and it called for the forfeiture of any vehicle being driven by anyone without a license or restricted permit, driving without insurance or driving on a revoked license.
It would have allowed a judge to refuse pre-trial release for immigrants deemed a flight risk or a threat to society and would have required undocumented immigrants to reimburse the state for the cost of their own imprisonment.
Sponsor Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, said the bill was "carefully crafted to address hardened criminal activity."
"This is a bill about law enforcement and public safety," he said. "The bill does not pretend to address illegal immigration or to enforce immigration laws."
The measure had drawn fire from both sides in the debate.
Advocates for undocumented immigrants said it would allow Arizona-style "show your papers" checkpoints and could be used to legitimize profiling.
Those against illegal immigration said the issuance of restricted drivers' permits would legitimize their presence in the country and could allow those immigrants to vote or collect government benefits.
Warren said the latter fears were unfounded. "This is not a driver’s license – it is simply a permit," he said, noting that it would not qualify under the bill as a valid form of identification or proof of legal status.
He said undocumented immigrants seeking a restricted driver's permit would have to submit to a criminal background check, prove their identities, prove they had lived in North Carolina for at least a year, pass the Division of Motor Vehicles test and have proof of pre-paid auto insurance.
Still, the measure proved too difficult for many House lawmakers to support. Sources close to the bill's sponsors said the McCrory administration also weighed in against it, citing concerns about the DMV's capacity to handle the new law.
So, sponsor Rep. Brian Brown, R-Pitt, offered an amendment to turn virtually all of it into a study.
"We have come to the conclusion that more investigation into these matters are necessary," Brown said, citing the bill's potential impact on legal immigrants, businesses, social services and law enforcement.
"This is an extremely important issue our state faces," he said. "We want to take the most measured approach possible in addressing this."
The amendment won almost unanimous support, and the newly-minted immigration reform study passed the House easily, 84-29. It will receive a final House vote Wednesday.