Rep. Harry Warren likes to wear flag pins on his jacket: One with the U.S. flag, and another with the North Carolina flag. On Tuesday morning, he sported them as he stood in front of the House of Representatives’ powerful finance committee, arguing the federal government has been ignoring a problem, and that the state government should take action.
“The question before us is whether or not we as an elected body want to take some strong legislative steps to hold undocumented folks accountable to obey North Carolina law,” Warren said.
Warren, a Republican from Rowan County, is the lead author of a bill that would allow some of North Carolina’s more than 300,000 undocumented immigrants to apply for restricted driving permits. Under the bill (HB328), people could obtain a one-year permit by passing the state’s driving tests, passing a criminal background check, and having their fingerprints taken.
Warren says the permits would help law enforcement. The bill would allow the Department of Motor Vehicles to create a list of undocumented immigrants, and turn it over to other state agencies. It would ban the use of consular registration cards or ID cards issued by local governments as a valid form of identification. And it would help patrol officers positively identify a driver if he or she is living in the country illegally.
The plan has the support of the House’s Democratic minority and some top Republicans, including Rep. Skip Stam (R-Cary), one of the most influential and conservative members of the chamber.
“We've got a huge problem with uninsured and unidentifiable drivers,” Stam said in early June. “All solutions have problems. No solution is a bigger problem. This is the best one I've seen. The others are welcome to offer other solutions I haven't seen.”
But as with any immigration-related legislation – in the federal or state levels – this one is contentious. Rep. Mitchell Setzer, a Republican from Catawba County, opposed the plan at Tuesday’s hearing because Department of Motor Vehicle and North Carolina State Police officials said it would create new burdens for them. And Rep. Bert Jones (R-Rockingham) said driving permits would be a welcoming card for unwanted immigrants.
Another key figure in the law writing process who opposes the plan: Governor Pat McCrory.
“He is concerned with the provision providing driving privileges to those who are in this country unlawfully,” Ryan Minto, the governor's legislative liaison, told lawmakers.
At the end of Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Bill Brawley, finance committee co-chair, asked committee members for a voice vote, but couldn’t distinguish between the aye’s and no’s, so he called for a rarely-used procedure for members to vote by standing: 22 stood in favor. 11 stood against.
Maudia Melendez, executive director of Jesus Ministry, drove from Charlotte to watch the hearing, and celebrated after the vote. She said driving permits would allow people to drive to legitimate jobs, and echoed Warren, saying the bill does not address immigration but rather local laws.
“This victory belongs to God,” she said.
But Ron Woodard, executive director of the immigration reform group NC Listen, scoffed at the claim that the proposal was not an immigration bill. He said offering driving permits would, in effect, be rewarding people for breaking federal law.
“I had had a couple of speeding tickets in my life, and I wasn’t rewarded when I was caught for speeding,” Woodard said after the hearing. “I did not get a lollipop. I was actually fined for that. There was punishment. And for that purpose, I haven’t had a speeding ticket in over a decade.”
The bill could now go before the full House, but it is unclear if and when Republican leaders will want to give it a hearing. In the meantime, Warren says as many as 90,000 undocumented immigrants are driving without permission and without insurance.