The General Assembly looks poised to present a path to legal driving for undocumented immigrants, but in what form remains to be seen.
“We have a lot of immigrants in our community, in the Valley, across our state who are in an awkward position, if you will,” said Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon.
A 46-year-old undocumented Harrisonburg man from Mexico, who declined to give his name and drives on a suspended license, said he supported the legislation to reduce the license threshold during a translated interview.
“It would be something very good because I have seen how people suffer,” he said.
Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson said residency status is only checked when suspects are arrested.
“The only time checks are done as far as [people’s] legal status or anything of that stuff comes when they are brought into the facility,” Hutcheson said.
He said if someone is pulled over for a minor violation, officers respond appropriately.
“At the street level, it’s not done that way,” said Hutcheson of checking residency status.
In Senate Bill 34, undocumented immigrants could have access to “driver privilege cards” allowing them to drive legally after showing state tax returns and obtaining insurance. Cardholders would not be allowed to vote and would have to pass an exam, according to the summary of the bill.
The bill passed the Senate 22-18, with Hanger in support and fellow senator Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, voting against.
“Some in the immigrant community would prefer it go further and there are lots of people who would prefer it not be done at all,” Hanger said of the privilege-card legislation.
As of Friday, the bill was approved by the House Appropriations committee. If passed, the bill would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2021.
“The privilege card basically serves the need for those individuals that are not documented that are already on the roads,” Hanger said.
House Bill 1211 would remove the state requirement for license applicants to prove legal presence and citizenship, according to the bill’s summary.
The bill passed the House 57-42, with Dels. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, and Chris Runion, R-Bridgewater, voting against the measure. Hanger said he also does not support the bill.
As of Thursday, House Bill 1211 has been referred to the Senate Finance and Appropriations committee. If passed, the bill would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2021.
For 16 years, the unnamed man the Daily News-Record spoke with drove legally in Virginia, as there was no requirement to prove his residency status, he said.
But for the past six years, he’s been driving outside of the law, since his license is suspended and he cannot update it now that the law requires he prove his legal presence, he said.
The city resident still carries the driver’s license around in his wallet.
Supporters of licenses or privilege cards, Hanger included in the latter, have said the number of hit-and-run incidents in the state could decrease if undocumented drivers have access to them.
“In some cases, the individual may be an undocumented immigrant not in the wrong, but afraid of the law coming there and investigating,” Hanger said.
Between 2016 and 2019, there were 330 hit-and-runs with four injuries and no fatalities in the city and county, according to preliminary and confirmed data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.
Statistics regarding undocumented immigrants who have gone through the city and county judicial system due to traffic violations could not be provided by the Harrisonburg Rockingham General District Court traffic staff, the Harrisonburg Police Department or the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office on Friday.
Interim Captain Pete Ritchie of the Harrisonburg Police Department said that city officers aren’t out looking for documentation, but “of course,” will ask for driver’s licenses and car registration if they were to pull a vehicle over for an infraction.
“For me, it’s been scary because sometimes I’m driving and the police are right behind me and I just pray to God, I keep praying, that they not stop me,” the man said through a translator.
The anonymous man said he drives about 30 to 40 miles a day between places such as his work, the hospital, church, Walmart and his daughter’s school.
“For that reason I’m always very cautious with how I drive, but with fear,” he said. “But I don’t have an option, I have a necessity to drive.”
Obenshain, Wilt and Runion could not be reached for comment Friday.
“We need to facilitate [undocumented residents] blending into our society, and I think it’s an improvement to document that they are here through DMV with the driver’s privilege card if they have all the qualifications,” Hanger said.