N.C. legislators focusing attention on licensing laws

Illegal immigrants flock to state because of relaxed requirements

September 16, 2001|By Tim Funk | By Tim Funk,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The North Carolina General Assembly is poised to consider a provision that would make it harder to get a driver's license by requiring at least two proofs of residency.

The reason?

The Tar Heel State has become The Driver's License State for tens of thousands of out-of-state illegal immigrants who can't get licenses where they live.

Latinos from as far away as New York and Florida have stood in line at North Carolina driver's license offices, drawn by word on the street that the state does not require either a Social Security number or proof of residency.

This lenient policy, copied by a few states but resisted by many more, has become part of a national debate over how far to go to accommodate immigrant workers. The Immigration and Naturalization Service doesn't like North Carolina's approach, but many employers eager to hire immigrants do.

Just across the state line, South Carolina takes the harder line. Driver's license applicants there are turned away if they can't produce a Social Security number or a letter from the Social Security Administration explaining why they don't have one.

One result of that policy: Many South Carolina-based immigrants head north for a day.

"I've heard that many times," said Sid Gaulden, spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Public Safety. "`If you can't get a license in South Carolina, go to North Carolina.'"

Those out-of-staters lengthen the long lines at many of the state's license offices, including most of Charlotte's. Because few of the area's Division of Motor Vehicles employees speak Spanish, delays are compounded.

For illegal (or undocumented) immigrants, a driver's license is more than just legal authorization to drive. It's a government-approved ID, complete with a picture. Flashing this prized possession can make it easier to keep a job, cash a check or find a place to live. Many are exchanged for replacements in the immigrants' home states.

Debate continues

Some North Carolina lawmakers want to take South Carolina's approach. Led by state Rep. Larry Justus, a Republican from Henderson, they're pushing a proposal this legislative session that would require a valid Social Security number in exchange for a license. That would cut out all undocumented immigrants, including the rapidly growing number who live and work in North Carolina.

North Carolina resident Max Mangum, fed up that "immigrants come from every state in the union to get their driver's licenses in North Carolina," said such a move is overdue.

"Geez, I would think this would be a priority in the Legislature and could be passed in a week," he said.

But that's not expected to happen - at least not this year.

The better bet is that the Legislature will add a provision to the budget bill authorizing the DMV to require proof of residency. Such proof, said lawyers on the legislative staff, could include a paid utility bill, a property tax receipt, even a letter from the Mexican consulate in Raleigh.

`The value ... of training'

"We want to have procedures in place to make sure North Carolina driver's licenses are available to North Carolina residents," said state Sen. Wib Gulley, a Durham Democrat who chairs the Senate transportation subcommittee. "But we also recognize the value of all the people driving on our roads having training and insurance."

Safety has been North Carolina's top priority in establishing eligibility guidelines for driver's licenses.

"North Carolina law doesn't address whether you're here with the permission of the INS," said Wayne Hurder, the state's director of driver's license certification. "Most [people here illegally] are going to drive. We think it's in their best interest and in the best interest of others on the highway for them to have a North Carolina license."

Conflicting opinions

In South Carolina, the official philosophy is different: Immigrants who entered the country illegally shouldn't be rewarded for breaking the law.

"These people are criminal fugitives," said South Carolina Rep. John Graham Altman, a Republican from Charleston.

He is one of the most vocal opponents of granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

"It's like somebody breaking into your house. Are you going to give them a floor map so they can find their way around the house?"

But the issue isn't settled. A month ago, a Hispanic/Latino Ad Hoc Committee created by South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges submitted its report. Among the problems it identified: Unlicensed Latino drivers don't have insurance, and many might not understand the state's driving laws because they haven't been tested.

"Take stopping for a school bus," said committee member Wilfredo Leon, the publisher of Latino, a Spanish-language newspaper in Greenville. "They may just go around the bus. And that's the last thing those kids are expecting."

Outside the Carolinas, other states are grappling with what to do.

In May, Tennessee decided to follow North Carolina and Virginia and grant licenses to illegal immigrants.

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