After spending months working on a wide-ranging immigration bill, the North Carolina House on Tuesday tentatively opted instead to study several issues. A GOP leader said it was because Republicans in the chamber couldn't agree on a provision granting driving permits to immigrants in the country illegally.
The measure originally would have directed the Division of Motor Vehicles to issue restricted one-year permits and identification cards to people living in the U.S. without legal permission. The bill also would have increased penalties for having or making false identification papers and spelled out when police could verify the immigration status of someone lawfully stopped or arrested.
Instead, the bill's sponsors offered an amendment telling the Department of Public Safety to study the ideas. The agency would make findings and recommendations to a legislative oversight committee by next March. Recommendations could be considered when the legislature's next planned work session begins the following May.
Rep. Brian Brown, R-Pitt, one of the bill's primary sponsors, told colleagues the proposals need to be examined in light of their likely effect on the state's economy, law enforcement and the community of immigrants living legally in North Carolina.
"We want to take the most measured approach possible," Brown said before the amendment passed by a wide margin. The altered bill, given initial approval by an 84-29 vote, needs a second vote Wednesday before going to the Senate in the final weeks of this year's session.
House Majority Leader Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell, said the House GOP caucus was divided on the driving issue.
"I have serious concerns of starting the precedent of giving a driver's license to someone who's here illegally," Starnes said. He said other colleagues felt the same way.
Another bill sponsor, Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, said late Monday that a conversation last week with state Transportation Secretary Tony Tata also influenced the study amendment. Tata was concerned that the bill would have directed DMV to start offering the permits Oct. 1. Warren said as many as 150,000 people would have sought the driving privilege.
Warren and other sponsors have said the previous bill would have helped promote safety while bringing immigrants who lack documentation out of the shadows. A handful of other states already issue some form of driver's permit to those who don't have permission to be in the country.
Some immigrant advocacy groups had supported the bill. They said the permits could help prevent efforts to have people unlawfully in the country deported.
"The issuance of driver licenses again represents protection from detention and deportation for undocumented immigrants which is for many their biggest fear," the NC Dream Team, which advocates for young people brought to the U.S. unlawfully, said in a written statement before Tuesday's vote.
But Raul Pinto, staff attorney with the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said his group is glad lawmakers put a halt to the original measure, especially due to what he called "Arizona-style" immigration enforcement provisions.
The delay is also "going to embolden our efforts to get the legislators to develop a licensing system is fair to all who meet the licensing requirement," Pinto said.
Before the study, the bill named the "RECLAIM NC" Act would have allowed police officers or sheriff's deputies to take up to two hours to verify the immigration status of a person who was arrested and suspected of being in the county unlawfully. An earlier version allowed for up to 24 hours.
One non-study provision was allowed to move forward with Tuesday's amendment - an item prohibiting companies from receiving state and local contracts unless they comply with E-Verify requirements for employees.