I've been stopped at a few police checkpoints in my day: Northern Ireland, the state of Chiapas in Mexico, Mississippi—and Durham. Although in each case I was innocent of any vehicular wrongdoing, I still felt uneasy about handing my driver's license to a police officer just because he wanted to see it.
Now I'm trying to imagine how I would respond if I had a pink driver's license, one that flagged me as a suspicious undesirable, an outcast, an undocumented immigrant, yet one lawfully present in the U.S.
I would feel uncomfortable, angry, even scared. If it happened in Alamance County, where the sheriff's office has been sued by the federal government over allegations of racial profiling of Latinos, I might be terrified.
That's precisely the reaction Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata, with the blessing of Gov. Pat McCrory, wants to elicit from North Carolina's undocumented immigrants: fear.
Many of these immigrants are here legally under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an executive order by President Obama, which authorizes them to stay in the U.S. for two years. Under the DACA program, they can obtain a driver's license, apply to college and get a job as they work toward citizenship.
In issuing these pink licenses—emblazoned with the words "no lawful status" (which isn't true)—Republicans want to punish immigrants for daring to be carried by the mother through the desert or put on a plane at age 4 to live with family members already in America.
They've graduated from high school. They hold jobs. They contribute to their families, churches and communities.
How dare they dream of becoming U.S. citizens?
The Republicans make the specious argument that immigrants will use a driver's license to obtain benefits they aren't entitled to. What benefits? Opening a bank account? Walking into a bar? Verifying a credit card?
As state Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, noted in a press conference Monday, benefits programs—presumably government-funded health care, food stamps and the like—require more than an ID card. There is an entire bureaucracy devoted to determining an applicant's eligibility. If that system fails, it's not because someone presented his or her driver's license.
If Republicans are genuinely concerned about the use of driver's licenses as a gateway drug to unearned Medicaid, then why not penalize all non-U.S. citizens? Our medical centers, universities and tech companies in Research Triangle Park teem with lawfully present immigrants. Yet their driver's licenses don't distinguish these immigrants from their American counterparts.
House Bill 184, co-sponsored by 19 Democrats, including Glazier, Paul Luebke of Durham, Rosa Gill of Raleigh and Deb McManus of Siler City, would make driver's licenses for DACA immigrants uniform with standard licenses.
(Republicans, not to be outdone, have introduced HB 141, which would prohibit the immigrants from obtaining licenses altogether.)
At the press conference announcing the bill, Glazier described a time "when badges and colors and stripe foretold life and death."
Classifying people by race via ID cards has long been a tool of oppressive governments trying to control their citizenry under the thumbscrews of power. In Nazi Germany, ID cards were used in fulfilling the Third Reich's genocidal mission. During Apartheid in South Africa, identification cards were used to racially classify blacks and whites for the purposes of discrimination.
In North Carolina, these pink licenses are demoralizing, inhumane throwbacks to the Jim Crow era. To require these licenses is an abhorrent, racist act that deserves our condemnation.
I remember the checkpoint outside Laurel, Miss. The officer looked at my Indiana driver's license and asked where I was headed.
"Alabama," I replied.
That's the direction North Carolina is headed, too: Alabama, circa 1955.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Code pink."