A month away from retirement, Charleston police officer Kay Wang has a mission in mind. The former Army sergeant major and 15-year police veteran is advocating for state leaders to pass a bill that would issue provisional driver’s licenses to undocumented individuals.
Wang is pushing the change on his own accord and with no connection to the police department. He sees the proposal as a way to help well-intentioned immigrants trying to build a better life and make local roads safer at the same time.
As a neighborhood officer for the Johns Island area, Wang has patrolled and immersed himself in that community, which includes a large Hispanic population, many of whom may not be legally documented to be in the U.S.
Wang said many of these workers take the road without a driver’s license because they need to get back and forth to jobs to support their families. Issuing them a provisional license would not affect their immigration status, but it would require that they familiarize themselves with state traffic laws and pass a driving test — measures that would help improve traffic safety, he said.
“What you have are hard-working people that are providing for themselves and also providing services and work to our region that have to drive a car to live, to get to work,” Wang said. “And yet they are petrified every time they get behind the wheel because they haven’t been able to get a driver’s license, and I think it’s wrong.”
In the last few months, based on his experiences as an officer, and with the assistance of other community members, Wang has created a proposal to provide these provisional driver’s licenses for undocumented residents who fall under certain parameters.
Similar measures are in effect in other states. But some Palmetto State legislators say it’s a fruitless effort that would never gain traction in South Carolina, a state that has done its best to pull up the welcome mat for immigrants here illegally.
One example of that pushback is a 2012 law that requires businesses to check new hires’ legal status through a federal system before giving them a job.
Another part of the law remains in limbo after the federal government blocked portions of it from going into effect, including a provision authorizing law enforcement in the state to check citizenship status.
State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, said he never would support a plan to issue provisional licenses to the undocumented, and it would never see the light of day in this state. There are no bills filed in the state proposing the idea.
“That will not happen in South Carolina. Not a chance,” he said. “Those folks are in this country illegally, they should not be entitled to benefits.”
Wang isn’t giving up hope. After all, he comes from a family of Korean immigrants and can relate to those who come to the U.S. for a better life.
Alma, who asked that her last name not be used, understands what it’s like to live in limbo. The 35-year-old Johns Island woman has been in the United States since she was 15, but she is not a U.S. citizen. Therefore, she does not have a driver’s license.
With two U.S.-born children, Alma said she has the same duties of many American mothers — soccer practice, groceries, rides to and from school.
“You go to work, you need to work. I need to go to school, doctor’s appointments, sports,” she recently told The Post and Courier. “Sometimes people ask: ‘Why you are driving so much? Why you taking your kids to sports?’ Because they need to be in sports.”
Every time Alma gets behind the wheel, she wonders if she’ll get caught. She recalled an April incident when another car crashed into her from behind.
“I knew I was all right, my son was OK. But the first thing that came to my mind is, What’s going to happen? I don’t have a drivers license.”
Fears of being sent back to Mexico flashed before her, she said.
“It’s scary. I just had faith and said everything is going to be all right.” For Alma, it was OK that time. She said police arrived and spoke to her and the other driver, both of whom were headed to church.
“The lady in the back said it was her fault,” she said.
Alma received a citation for not having a driver’s license and she paid her fine with no awkward questions about her immigration status. But Alma knows it might not happen like that every time.
Wang said the legal system is murky and the outcome for undocumented residents can vary when they encounter police, depending on the law enforcement officer’s judgment. “When you get an officer ... it’s a fork in the road. He has a choice — just write the ticket and have them go to court or it’s a lockable offense, go to Leeds Avenue jail,” Wang said.
A trip to county jail for the undocumented can lead to a one-way ticket out of the country.
Charleston County detention officers have flagged hundreds of illegal immigrants for deportation since they began screening the immigration status of inmates in 2010 as part of a federal program. Several detention officers and supervisors at the county jail have completed training by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, allowing them to tap into Department of Homeland Security computers to screen foreign-born offenders arrested for state and local crimes.
Once in custody, the deportation process typically begins with being sent to a federal facility in Georgia, according to ICE officials.
In 2012, 882 offenders were processed for removal here by ICE through the program, Sheriff’s Maj. Tim Smith said. So far this year, 601 offenders were questioned and 283 flagged for removal, he said.
Wang said situations like that have ripped apart families of those looking for a better life.
“They’re building America,” he said. “They come to America with a dream.”
Grooms isn’t the only lawmaker with doubts about a provisional license plan passing in Columbia.
State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, said considering the way the last immigration bill in the General Assembly went, he doubts Wang’s plan would have much support. “It doesn’t make sense now when federal courts are striking down most of what states do on immigration,” he said.
At least 11 other states have implemented a law issuing licenses for undocumented immigrants, according to the National Immigration Law Center, which tracks current and pending state laws and policies on driver’s licenses for immigrants. In March, North Carolina began issuing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants who have been granted relief from deportation by the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Despite what some other states are doing, Grooms said, it’s a bad idea that would only attract a larger illegal population to the state.
“If the folks in California think that having illegal immigrants in their state is good, God bless them,” Grooms said. “But I think I can speak for a vast majority of legislators in this state — we don’t think that’s a good thing for South Carolina.”
Wang’s proposal includes several parameters that an undocumented resident would have to qualify for before being approved of a provisional license. The provisions include having U.S.-born children, no criminal record for themselves or their children and being employed. Recently, Wang, Johns Island church leaders and other community members met with Charleston Mayor Joe Riley about the proposal, an effort Wang said the mayor backs.
Riley said economically, it makes sense and creates safer roads for the community.
“It would be far better for the community to have people behind the wheel having passed a driver’s exam and know all the requirements of getting a license,” he said.
Charleston City Councilman Marvin Wagner, whose district covers Johns Island, said he’s somewhere down the middle on the issue, but still agrees with the proposal.
“We’re taking unlicensed drivers off of the roads. It seems to make the driving environment a tad bit safer to me,” he said. “I think it warrants consideration.”
Wang said he empathizes with many of the undocumented residents who drive, despite not having licenses, many of them mothers and fathers taking their families to school, day-care and medical clinics.
Wang said as an officer he has worked many accidents involving those individuals. After being issued a citation for no driver’s license, they appear in court and pay their fine, he said.
Then, he said, “they go back in the parking lot, look this way, look that way, and they take their chances all over again.”