Proposed bills would expand rights for undocumented immigrants

DOVER — A recently filed bill would allow immigrants who entered the country unlawfully to obtain a driving privilege card in Delaware, while a companion piece of legislation would bar law enforcement from making arrests based solely on a person’s immigration status.

The two bills are the result of a 2014 task force that focused on “undocumented Delawareans,” as a report from the task force refers to them.

The group, which consisted of legislators, state officials and community representatives, was created to address the issue of immigrants driving, since they often have neither valid U.S. entitlement nor insurance.

Bryan Townsend

Bryan Townsend

Senate Bill 59 would grant “undocumented Delawareans” the right to a driving permit separate from the type of license or permit held by most drivers.

Individuals who have acceptable forms of identification, such as a passport or foreign driver’s license, as well as proof of having filed Delaware tax returns for each of the past two years or been claimed as a dependent by someone who did, could take a background check to determine their eligibility. Delaware residents who do not have a serious criminal history could then get a privilege card.

The bill text notes the permit is not to be treated as a license and is not an acceptable form of identification.

In an interview, main sponsor Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, took care to emphasize the proposal is not intended as a step toward full legalization of individuals who entered the United States through illegal means.

“It has nothing to do with citizenship” and would not allow the individuals to vote, he insisted.

That was seconded by Maria Matos, president and chief executive officer of the Latin American Community Center in Wilmington.

“We’re not going to step on United States laws, we’re not condoning unlawful presence in the United States or saying we’re OK with undocumented people coming into the country, but they’re here,” she said. “They’re here and we need to approach this.”

Based on a survey conducted by the center, she believes many immigrants would apply for a driving card if the bill passes.

By issuing privilege cards, the state also can provide educational materials and have a better chance of stressing road safety rules, Sen. Townsend said.

Additionally, some companies offer insurance to immigrants who have driving permits, he said. If the bill passes, “undocumented Delawareans” not only would have potentially greater awareness of auto safety but other drivers would be protected from liability. Currently, if a Delaware driver gets in an accident with an illegal immigrant, who likely would not have insurance, the documented driver is stuck footing the bill.

Senate Bill 59 could change that.

The second proposal, Senate Bill 60, deals with law enforcement. It would bar police from arresting an individual solely on the basis of his or her immigration status.

“They need to have trust that when they show up to sign up for these cards this is not basically going to lead to deportation,” Sen. Townsend said.

The federal government is “kicking the can down the road,” he argued, leading to increasing numbers of “undocumented Delawareans” settling into communities. As a result, Sen. Townsend seeks to codify police responsibilities, ensuring law enforcement is not an “extension of federal immigration services.”

There are far more pressing public safety concerns, he said, noting he believes police typically do not make arrests based on immigration anyway.

Some entities have prohibited law enforcement from making arrests of individuals who entered the country illegally but are not wanted for criminal acts. Philadelphia did so in April of 2014, and Illinois instituted a similar policy earlier this year. Both put into place the practices through executive order. Eagle County, Colo., police helped develop a group to promote trust and alleviate the concerns of immigrants in 2010.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, a Democrat, said in a press release upon declaring the policy, “The Philadelphia Police Department relies on information gathered from residents to solve crime and protect the safety of our communities, and without a significant level of trust, citizens do not talk to the police.”

The exact number of immigrants who entered Delaware illegally is unknown. A study from the Pew Research Center estimated about 20,000 unauthorized individuals lived in Delaware in 2012. An exodus of unaccompanied minors from Central America made headlines last summer, and a small number of children came to Delaware.

Ms. Matos emphasized she believes unauthorized individuals driving is a safety issue, and by allowing immigrants the right to earn a driving card, they can become more aware of the rules of the road and obtain insurance. The other proposal could help improve relations between police and the immigrant community, which often distrusts law enforcement for fear members will be deported if they report a crime.

The community center, which was represented on the task force, disagreed with law enforcement’s wishes that fingerprinting be a requirement for a privilege card, as some immigrants had expressed fears they would be arrested once their fingerprints were on file, according to Ms. Matos.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 13 states allow at least limited driving privileges to immigrants who have entered the nation illegally.

The bills each have eight sponsors: seven Democrats and one Republican. Despite the polarizing nature of immigration on a national scale, Sen. Townsend believes the General Assembly can discuss the topic without it devolving into a partisan free-for-all.

He’s confident the bills are fair and will receive support from both sides of the aisle.

“There’s reason to believe Delaware will not turn into the typical Washington, D.C., talking point on immigration reform,” he said.

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Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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