Editorial: Removing a roadblock

  • Posted: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 12:14 a.m.

Reducing the number of unlicensed, unregistered, uninsured motorists on North Carolina roads is a worthy goal, and legislation under consideration in the N.C. Legislature could help by providing a mechanism for undocumented immigrants to obtain valid driver’s licenses.

The question, however, is whether the measure also would open the way for increased profiling of Hispanic motorists or over-zealous enforcement in which drivers with restricted permits find themselves on a one-way street headed out of the country.

One of the bill’s chief sponsors, Rep. Harry Warren of Rowan County, says that’s not the intent. While the law does provide for detention of a motorist believed to be in the country illegally, Warren said the aim is to increase public safety, not create a backdoor route to increased deportations.

It’s notable that this bill comes from Republicans, who previously have often criticized attempts to give undocumented immigrants any valid standing in the state — notable, but not altogether surprising. The national dynamic on immigration is shifting as more Republicans leaders acknowledge the need for reform that provides pathways for undocumented but otherwise law-abiding immigrants to gain legal residency status, if not eventual citizenship.

That doesn’t mean the N.C. proposal sets a low threshold for compliance or avoids sharp edges. Applicants would have to undergo a criminal background check, possess a valid passport or federal tax form, show proof of insurance and have lived at least a year in the state before April 1. Someone who obtains a restricted license and runs afoul of the law could be denied bail, be forced to pay the cost of their incarceration and forfeit their vehicles if found to be in the country illegally. Police could detain people for 24 hours while they check their immigration status. The measure also would restrict the use of consular ID cards for identification purposes.

In other words, this is hardly an open-door policy inviting illegal immigrants to sign up for a driver’s license. It probably wouldn’t do much to get the worst offenders off our roads — immigrants who are here illegally, have criminal backgrounds, are operating under the law-enforcement radar and will continue doing so. Yet for thousands of immigrants who are here illegally but want to comply with our laws — are living among us, raising families, working or going to school — the restricted license could provide a way to come out of the shadows, provided enforcement is evenhanded and in keeping with the legislative intent. While it’s a limited step, the driver’s license proposal shows movement in a positive direction.

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