By: Milan Simonich
Las Cruces Sun-News
SANTA FE — Five Democrats in the House of Representatives flexed their political muscle Tuesday night, blocking two bills that would repeal a driver’s license law for illegal immigrants.Republican members who sponsored the repeal proposals argued that the bills should be kept alive so they could be decided by the full 70-member House of Representatives.But Democrats on the House Labor and Human Resources Committee disagreed. They used their majority power on the committee to table both bills on 5-4 party-line votes.
At issue is a 2003 law that enables illegal immigrants with proof of New Mexico residency to obtain a driver’s license. Groups that favor the law say it has served immigrants and businesses well.
But Republican Reps. Paul Pacheco and Bill Rehm, both retired police officers from Albuquerque, said the law makes New Mexico a magnet for fraud. They sponsored separate repeal proposals.
Their expert witness, Demesia Padilla, secretary of the Taxation and Revenue Department, said people living illegally somewhere in the United States travel to New Mexico to obtain a driver’s license. She said with it, they legitimize themselves, and then can move about the country.
Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, argued for both repeal bills. She said Democrats on the Labor Committee had defied the will of the people by keeping the licensing law alive.
Ezzell said the licensing law could take away her freedoms, namely that she might need a passport to fly domestically because a New Mexico driver’s license would become worthless as identification.
Ezzell stirred proponents of the licensing law when she said “illegals” could threaten the way of life her family members fought for in wars.
Rehm repeated some of her concerns. He said New Mexicans would need a passport to enter a federal building or an airplane.
These statements were rebutted by Marcela Diaz, executive director of the immigrant group Somos Un Pueblo Unido.
She said New Mexicans are in no peril because of the driver’s license law for illegal immigrants. The federal REAL ID Act provides inclusion for states that issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.
House Speaker Ken Martinez said more states actually are moving toward a licensing system such as New Mexico’s.
Illinois, for instance, on Monday approved a law similar to New Mexico’s. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat who signed the measure, said public safety was the reason.
“This common-sense law will help everybody, regardless of their background, learn the rules of the road, pass a driving test and get insurance. As a result, our roads will be safer, we will create more access to job opportunities and our economic growth will be strengthened,” Quinn said.
Many advocates of the New Mexico licensing law said it has kept families together and enabled hardworking immigrants to drive to back-breaking jobs on farms, in oil fields and in hospitality businesses.
Pacheco’s bill simply would have repealed the law. It was a near duplicate of a bill that former Rep. Andy Nunez, an independent from Hatch, introduced the last two years.
Rehm’s proposal would have repealed the law and revoked the licenses of foreign nationals. They would have received a refund for the unused portion of the license, some of which are valid for eight years.
New Mexico has issued 94,000 driver’s licenses to foreign nationals, meaning the payback program could have cost millions.
Padilla said of those with foreign national licenses, only about 16,000 filed tax returns last year. She said this was a good indicator that most illegal immigrants who obtained New Mexico licenses have left the state.
Rehm in 2011 sponsored a bill to grant illegal immigrants driving privilege cards that would have been good only in New Mexico. He said he changed to an all-out repeal because that is what the people of his district and the state want.
Democrats in the Legislature still may offer a compromise bill that would issue illegal immigrants driving privilege cards. But the preference of many Democrats is to leave the existing law as is.
Pacheco’s repeal proposal is House Bill 132 and Rehm’s is House Bill 161. The five Democrats who blocked their bills were House Speaker Ken Martinez of Grants, Rep. Phillip Archuleta of Las Cruces, and Reps. Rick Miera, Miguel Garcia and Sheryl Williams Stapleton, all of Albuquerque.
Milan Simonich, Santa Fe bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.