@NCCapitol

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Idea of driving permits for illegal immigrants divides House committee

Posted June 2, 2015 11:48 a.m. EDT
Updated June 8, 2015 10:35 p.m. EDT

— Legislation that would grant driving permits to North Carolina residents who are in the United States illegally bogged down in a House committee Tuesday morning.

After 90 minutes of often contentious debate, Chairman Rep. Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, said the House Finance Committee had gone past the time allowed under House rules for a vote on House Bill 328. So, he adjourned the meeting, saying the bill would resurface in a future committee meeting.

The proposal would create a "restricted ID" for undocumented residents in North Carolina who undergo fingerprinting and background checks and prove their identity and state residence. Driving privileges would be attached to the restricted ID, provided applicants pass a state driving test and obtain liability insurance coverage.

"This is a fairly simple bill that is greatly misunderstood and deliberately misrepresented," said lead sponsor Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan. "This bill has absolutely nothing to do with immigration, immigration law or immigration reform – nothing. This is about law enforcement and about safety for our citizens."

Between 90,000 and 110,000 undocumented people are driving on North Carolina roads, Warren estimated, but they don't carry the same responsibilities as other drivers to pass tests and carry insurance before getting behind the wheel.

"Every provision of this bill works to hold citizens and those illegally present in North Carolina accountable to North Carolina law," he said.

Yet, some lawmakers said providing undocumented residents with a state-issued ID was akin to legitimizing their presence in the state.

"I think we grossly underestimate the value and rights of citizenship in this country and the seriousness of the crime of illegally entering this country," said Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham. "We should not be encouraging, should not be endorsing, should not be accepting illegal immigration in any way."

Warren noted that the permit, which would be good for only one year, would be distinct from a driver's license in that it couldn't be used as identification to obtain public assistance or other government services or to register to vote.

Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, tried to strip the permit provision from the bill, agreeing with Jones and others that few outside the legislature would draw the distinction Warren outlined and that the permit would become a de facto ID for undocumented residents, opening more doors for them.

"We're taking one more step down the road to legitimacy if we allow these permits," Blust said.

Rep. Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus, even brought out the specter of 9/11 during the debate, noting that terrorists were able to get past security screenings by carrying Florida driver's licenses rather than foreign visas.

Warren sharply criticized the proposed amendment, saying he was "absolutely flabbergasted" by suggestions that doing nothing is better than doing something.

"What we're doing is deciding whether or not we're going to hold people accountable or whether we're going to continue with the status quo," he said.

The fingerprinting and background checks would create a statewide database that would benefit law enforcement, he said. Although the state Division of Motor Vehicles couldn't turn over information to immigration authorities when people sign up for a permit, the information would be available to law enforcement if someone commits a crime.

Warren also dismissed the notion that creating a permit would serve as a magnet and attract more undocumented people 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.

"Driver's licenses and permits and driving privileges doesn't drive immigration to your state. The opportunity to work does," he said. "There are not people in Honduras saying, 'God, if I can just get to North Carolina, I get a driver's license.'"

Blust's amendment was defeated 11-22.

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. Also, cards issued by foreign consulates would no longer be accepted as IDs by government agencies or law enforcement.

Rep. Edward Hanes, D-Forsyth, said he worries that the provision about possessing a fake ID would catch more underage college students than anybody else. Warren said he would be willing to work with Hanes to adjust the bill but insisted that the intent is to reduce identity theft and encourage people to get the state-issued IDs.

Other provisions of the bill would require that someone remain in jail until trial if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has placed a detainer on him or her, outline how law enforcement can verify someone's immigration status during a traffic stop or arrest – verification wouldn't be necessary if the person displayed the state-issued ID – and set the procedure for seizing vehicles from undocumented residents caught driving without a restricted permit.