NC House panel shields proposed driving permits for undocumented immigrants

A House panel rejected a push Tuesday to gut legislation that would provide state-issued identification cards and driving permits for many thousands of immigrants in the United States illegally, while increasing penalties for selling or using phony IDs.

But the House Finance Committee failed to vote on House Bill 328, and it was unclear whether the measure will make it to the House floor.

Undocumented immigrants would have to provide fingerprints, submit to criminal background checks, pay fees that could range between $60 and $200, and provide proof of identity to receive ID cards or one-year driving permits from the state Division of Motor Vehicles. The driving permits would come with standard DMV licensing requirements, including driving tests and insurance coverage.

Making or selling a phony ID card would be punished as a felony. Penalties also would be increased for undocumented immigrants who drive without a license and without insurance coverage. These illegal drivers would be more likely to face arrest, find it harder to win release on bail, and risk having their cars seized.

“What this bill really says to the undocumented community is you have three choices,” said bill sponsor Rep. Harry Warren, a Rowan County Republican who has been driving the issue for the past three years.

“Number one, come out of the shadows and comply with this bill. Tell us who you are, where you are, submit to fingerprints and a criminal background check, qualify for a restricted ID or a restricted driver’s permit. If you don’t, the second choice is to stay in the shadows, and when you’re stopped for a broken taillight and you don’t have a restricted permit, your vehicle will be confiscated,” Warren said. “Your third choice is to simply leave the state.”

Warren said North Carolinians are at risk now from an estimated 100,000 undocumented immigrants who drive illegally, without licenses or insurance coverage.

Rep. Rodney Moore, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, welcomed the legislation.

“At some point in time, all of us as Americans were immigrants – whether we were forced here or we came voluntarily,” Moore said. “This bill is a very good first step to bringing these immigrants out of the shadows, making them compliant with the law of the land and holding them to some accountability.”

Two committee members worried that Warren’s bill would deliver undue punishment with felony charges for underage teens who use counterfeit IDs to buy cigarettes and alcohol.

“That’s pretty harsh,” said Rep. Jay Adams, a Catawba County Republican.

Warren pointed out a section of his legislation drafted with this “rite of passage” in mind. Using phony IDs for underage tobacco or alcohol purchase would still be treated as a misdemeanor.

The sharpest criticism was delivered by Rep. Bert Jones, a Rockingham County Republican.

“We would be giving someone a document that could be used in a fraudulent way,” Jones said. “If I were here illegally, I would support this. … If it is considered a positive in the illegal community, to me that is exactly why we should not do it.”

But Rep. Paul Stam, a Wake County Republican, said Warren’s bill was the best solution to North Carolina’s “huge problem with uninsured and unidentifiable drivers.”

Maudia Melendez of Charlotte, who has lobbied for immigrant driving privileges as director of Jesus Ministry, a Latino advocacy group, said later that Warren’s bill would protect North Carolina from criminals.

“The part where people need to provide their fingerprints, that will deter criminals from coming to North Carolina,” Melendez said in an interview. “There’s going to be a point where everybody should be documented with this permit or restricted ID.”

Sheriff Sam Page of Rockingham County told reporters the bill would increase crime.

“Providing driving privileges and providing the identification cards always is a potential for fraud,” Page said.

Rep. John Blust, a Guilford County Republican, argued that the state should not “confer some degree of legitimacy” on the estimated 325,000 people in North Carolina illegally. He offered an amendment to delete Warren’s proposal for state-issued IDs and driving permits.

Different ‘Star Wars’ character

After shouted choruses of “ayes” and “nos,” committee chairman Rep. Jason Saine said he believed Blust’s supporters had prevailed. But he agreed to request a show of hands, and the vote count for Blust was 22 to 11 against the amendment.

Saine, a Lincoln County Republican, acknowledged the reversal in a joking reference to a recent controversy over a Senate committee’s disputed voice vote. Critics said Sen. Bob Rucho, the committee chairman, ignored protests that he had ruled incorrectly on the vote. News & Observer cartoonist Dwane Powell lampooned Rucho as Jabba the Hutt, the “Star Wars” movie villain.

“So the amendment falls short,” Saine said. “We do it differently in the House. The chair doesn’t care how loud you can shout. I’m a different Star Wars character.”

Asked later to elaborate, Saine replied by email: “As to the Star Wars character, I am not sure which one best suits me but I am not a member of the Imperial Senate. (Kidding of course.)”

Saine said he did not know when the Finance Committee will vote on the bill. Several committee members said that even if the House adopts Warren’s legislation, the Senate is likely to send it to the dustbin.

“I think most of you know the Senate has a nice round file waiting for it,” Jones said.