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Give undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses

The REAL ID Act's costly implications for North Carolina Latino communities 

Ana Gonzalez greets me at her home in southern Wake County with a warm smile and a wish that what I write might help her. Gonzalez, a native of Mexico, has lived in the United States for 19 years. "Half my life," she says. And for 19 years, she was a legally licensed driver. Now she's not. But it's not because she doesn't want to be—or need to be—to get to work and support her family.

Her problem is that her North Carolina driver's license recently expired—and she's an undocumented immigrant. North Carolina used to allow people to apply for a license using a tax identification number—the same federal ID that allows undocumented immigrants to pay taxes—in lieu of a birth certificate. But that's no longer the case. A change in federal statute (the REAL ID Act) tightened state licensing laws, ours among them.

So as of January, when her license expired, Gonzalez is one of the tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants who are driving illegally in North Carolina. As formerly valid licenses expire, the number is growing, and could be as high as 200,000.

It's a huge problem for Latino communities, where breadwinners live in fear of police checkpoints, tickets, court costs and lawyer fees, plus the remote—but not impossible—chance that a ticket will lead to deportation.

Last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, eight states relaxed their driving laws to allow some form of legal permit or temporary license for people like Gonzalez. Three other states already had such laws. These permits will not get you on an airplane and generally are tagged with a different color than regular licenses.

A bill to create a similar system is possible when the North Carolina General Assembly reconvenes in May.

Immigration policy in this country is complex (I started to say nuts), but I'll try to summarize the relevant elements. About 12 million immigrants are here illegally, many for decades. Many of us want them here, though some of us don't. But even those who don't must realize that mass deportations are off the table—and undocumented immigrants who commit serious crimes are deported.

In fact, as a new report to the General Assembly from the N.C. Department of Public Safety makes clear, entire industries in North Carolina—agriculture, food processing, construction—depend on undocumented immigrants. Otherwise, the report says, these industries would face "a lack of citizens who will take these jobs at the offered wages." The report also indicates that licensing undocumented drivers could improve highway safety.

What to do, then, with Ana Gonzalez? She's divorced, with three children who live with her. The younger two were born in the U.S. and are American citizens; the oldest is a legal resident. She has a home-cleaning business.

She speaks passable English and rapid-fire Spanish, which her youngest, Alex, a bilingual fourth-grader who is wise in the ways of immigration law to an extent no fourth-grader should have to be, translated easily.

Our choices are:

• Crack down on her, lock her up for illegal driving, and when she gets out, lock her up again unless she leaves the state.

• Crack down, but with tickets, not jail, which would let her remain in the U.S., but make her life and her children miserable.

• License her to drive, which would allow her to keep her business and raise her children as Americans.

I would recommend the third course.

I met Ana through her niece, Viridiana Martinez, a leader of the N.C. DREAM Team, young people who grew up in this state and graduated from (or attend) North Carolina high schools. (The INDY awarded the group a Citizen Award in 2010.) Because they were brought into the U.S. as children by their parents, however, they aren't citizens.

The DREAM Act, which would give them a path to citizenship, is stalled in Congress, as is more extensive immigration legislation. It passed the Senate; the House won't take it up, or the DREAM Act, either. Meanwhile, President Obama has given most DREAMers temporary legal status through an executive order.

Martinez was 23 when she partipated in a hunger strike at the State Capitol. That was four years ago. Since then, she's been a formidable advocate for reform and a fighter for those threatened with deportation.

In North Carolina, the deportation process, Martinez says, is now more fair. People like her aunt, with a clean record and strong ties to a community, aren't in danger the way they used to be.

But they are in danger of being ticketed, again and again.

Gonzalez hasn't been ticketed yet, though she believes the police are aware of her situation, so she's driving as little as possible. Nonetheless, she asked me to use her full name. "I'm not scared," she said. "I pay taxes every year. My record is good. I have two children who are citizens."

Viridiana's father, Jesus Martinez, who lives in Harnett County, has been ticketed. In the last four years, he told me, he's received 10 tickets, most when he was driving to work for an early-morning shift in a factory.

Every ticket costs him $310 in court costs plus his lawyer's fee. "My lawyer lives pretty well," he said. Insurance points? Only three.

Viridiana said that, at meetings in Hispanic communities people constantly say they are afraid of checkpoints and tickets.

"It makes me mad, watching people like my father who works his ass off to have to pay ticket after ticket after ticket," Martinez said. "We want citizenship, yes, but let's be practical and go for something we can get. We want licenses."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Driving While Undocumented."

  • Give undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses

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