Bill calling for separate immigrant driving cards passes first hurdle

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Posted: Thursday, January 21, 2016 11:00 pm | Updated: 12:09 pm, Fri Jan 22, 2016.

A Republican-majority House committee approved a bill Thursday that would make New Mexico driver’s licenses compliant with the federal Real ID Act and allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driving privilege card.

The bill, sponsored by Reps. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, and Andy Nuñez, R-Hatch, passed its first hurdle with a 4-3 vote in the House Regulatory and Public Affairs Committee after a nearly three-hour debate. It now goes to the House Judiciary Committee.

Both supporters and opponents of the bill spoke passionately about its potential impact during the hearing. Republicans argued it will make licenses compliant with federal requirements and still allow undocumented immigrants to legally drive. Meanwhile, Democrats blamed Republicans for targeting undocumented immigrants under the pretext of trying to comply with federal regulations.

Pacheco and Nuñez’s bill would create a driver’s license system that would allow U.S. citizens and immigrants with lawful status in the country to receive a license compliant with the Real ID Act. Meanwhile, undocumented immigrants would receive a driving privilege card that states it’s not to be used for federal purposes.

As lawmakers discussed the bill, members of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a local immigrant rights organization, sat in the House gallery wearing yellow T-shirts that read, “Choose dignity not discrimination.”

The group members said they oppose the bill because it gives undocumented immigrants a “scarlet letter.” Since undocumented immigrants would be the only segment of the population to have driving privilege cards, they said, this could lead to discrimination by police officers.

“The driving privilege card makes us vulnerable to discrimination and racism,” said Bartolo Canales, who spoke against the bill during a public comment period.

Since the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently announced that New Mexico licenses wouldn’t be recognized for federal purposes, lawmakers have proposed at least four different bills they say will resolve the issue.

The federal government has said that New Mexico residents can use their licenses to board domestic commercial flights until 2018. But Republican lawmakers say that if Democrats don’t join them in approving one of their bills, residents eventually will have to buy a passport to fly on a plane and access federal buildings.

Pacheco’s bill marks a step back from his previous efforts to repeal a state law allowing licenses for undocumented immigrants, without offering the alternative driving privilege cards — efforts supported by Gov. Susana Martinez.

In TV ads and Facebook posts, Martinez recently has said that she supports Pacheco and Nuñez’s bill because it makes the state compliant with the Real ID Act and prohibits immigrants without lawful status in the U.S. from obtaining a driver’s license.

The bill calls for a renewable, one-year driving privilege card. Applicants would have to prove they’ve lived in the state for two years and be fingerprinted by the state Department of Public Safety.

Pacheco told the panel of lawmakers Thursday that after sponsoring several bills to repeal the 2003 immigrant license law, he and the governor came up with this compromise. He said he has heard from undocumented immigrants who say they need licenses to drive to work and drive their U.S.-born children to schools.

Still, immigrant rights advocates oppose the bill because it singles out undocumented immigrants. Police officers who encounter a driver with a privilege card could end up harassing the driver because the card would clearly indicate that he or she is an undocumented immigrant, advocates say.

Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, spoke against the bill, saying Pacheco’s proposal would force her — along with other U.S. citizens — to get a Real ID-compliant license even if she doesn’t want one.

“That’s what is concerning to me,” Caballero said, “because I thought that’s what all of us are all about — having choices.”

Democrats and immigrant rights advocates support a different bill the Senate passed last year when 11 Republicans joined all 24 Democrats. That measure later died in the House of Representatives. It would provide a driver’s license compliant with the federal Real ID Act for U.S. citizens and immigrants with lawful status who want it. A secondary driver’s license would be available for undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens who do not want a Real ID-compliant license.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, filed a similar bill Thursday.