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I-40 Accident Prompts Lawmaker To Push For Tougher State Immigration Laws

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Should local authorities have the power to detain illegal immigrants? It's part of a nationwide issue that at least one state lawmaker wants addressed in North Carolina.

The issue resurfaced Monday after an early-morning accident along part of Interstate 40 in Wake County that forced some motorists to find alternate routes.

At about 6:35 a.m., a van overturned near the Airport Boulevard exit in Wake County.

Although no one was seriously injured, at least two other vehicles were damaged, and the overturned van blocked two left lanes causing traffic to be detoured around the accident. Eastbound traffic was backed up for miles and caused onlooker delays in the westbound lanes.

Initially, authorities searched for the driver of the van, who they believed had fled the scene. Later however, authorities realized that the person who caused the accident might have been driving a red Toyota.

Troopers said that was just the start of the confusion because three men involved in the crash claimed they couldn't speak English.

They had no driver's licenses, no identification and nothing to prove who they were.

Although there was a language barrier, the trooper working the case took down what information he could, and released who he described as three Hispanic men.

"It's astounding that something wasn't done to take these men into custody," said Rep. Russell Capps, R-Wake. "There were totally undocumented, as I understand it. They had no driver's licenses, nothing to identify them, and yet they've gone free."

Capps said the accident is a prime example of the immigration problem in North Carolina and that the way it was handled is a concern.

"I think the No. 1 issue in America, right now, is immigration and what we're going to do about our borders. This certainly doesn't help the case at all. In fact, it infuriates me, and I'm sure it infuriates your viewers."

Motorists who were involved in the accident were initially told that since authorities could not identify the driver of the van, there would probably not be any charges filed in the case.

A Highway Patrol spokesman, however, said authorities do not intend to drop the case and that they are still compiling information.

"We don't know who the driver was. We are still following up on leads," said Lt. Everett Clendenin, of the state Highway Patrol. "We won't drop this. We will follow up on this."

The Highway Patrol insists its trooper did nothing wrong by not detaining the undocumented men. If the driver is found, he or she will be held accountable for all damage.

"North Carolina law leaves it up to the individual officer. It's his discretion to decide what type of action he's going to take," Clendenin said. "In this case, the trooper took names, and we're trying to seek the driver, and the proper action will be taken."

Capps said he plans to take the issue to the state Legislature and will push for increased enforcement of state immigration laws.

Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, R-North Carolina, announced a program in Charlotte that would give local law enforcement the power to detain and deport illegal immigrants.

Nationally, the U.S. Senate moves closer to passing an immigration bill that includes tougher border security, a new guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants.

The Senate hopes to vote on the proposed legislation before next week.