A valuable second chance

Tens of thousands of residents in the Durham-Chapel Hill metropolitan area are Latino/Hispanic immigrants, and they contribute significantly to our economy and the rich cultural diversity of our area.

Many are undocumented, although they may have lived here for years, sometimes decades, major sustainers of building trades, landscaping businesses and other services. Most of those jobs and others in retail, food service and other sectors require transportation -- as does shopping for groceries and taking kids to school activities, sports and doctor appointments.

With limited public transportation, that means driving a car. And North Carolina, like many states, in short-sighted and punitive resistance to the immigrant influx, won’t issue a driver’s license to an undocumented resident. More than three-quarters of the motorists cited for driving without a license in Orange and Chatham counties are Hispanic.

The situation is not only unfair, it’s unsafe -- unlicensed, unregulated and ofter under-trained driver’s on our roads out of grim necessity can be a risk to themselves and others.

So it’s in the service of safety as well as social justice that the Orange-Chatham district attorney’s office has launched a “second chance” program for immigrant motorists caught driving without a license. Under the program, created by Orange-Chatham District Attorney Jim Woodall, an undocumented, unlicensed motorist can get the license charge dismissed if he or she provides acceptable identification and pays to take a safe-driving class, a class on civics and law enforcement and an additional elective course. They must have insurance and their vehicle must be property registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The motorists who would benefit are “good, responsible residents, they’re not in trouble, they’re working, but they’ve got this problem,” Woodall said. “They can’t get a driver’s license, there’s no way out of this for them. And we’re trying to get them some driver’s education, because virtually none of the people we’re talking about have ever been given any type of driver’s education.”

The program, Woodall believes, would also help build ties between law enforcement and the Latino community.

“I want to send a message to that community that you are a part of our community,” Woodall said. “You may be undocumented but sometimes we need your help, sometimes you’re going to need our help, and I’m willing to try to do my part ... to promote some goodwill and trust here.”

Promoting goodwill and trust with our immigrant neighbors strikes us a a much better policy than forcing them into the shadows, struggling to be good citizens and productive members of our community. We wish the legislature -- not to mention our president -- would take a similar approach.