Compromise on immigrant licenses clears committee

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By Milan Simonich The New Mexican March 12, 2015 Santa Fe--A Senate committee voted late Thursday for a compromise bill that would make New Mexico compliant with the federal Real ID Act while still enabling undocumented immigrants to obtain state driver’s licenses.

The measure cleared the Senate Public Affairs Committee on a 5-3, party-line vote. All three Republicans on the panel opposed the bill. Two of them, though, said they may change their minds if it reaches the floor for a vote by all 42 senators.

Gov. Susana Martinez for four years has been pushing to repeal the 2003 law that enables New Mexico residents without proof of immigration status to get a driver’s license. Martinez, a Republican, has called the law dangerous and said it threatens border and national security.

But now two conservative senators, Democrat John Arthur Smith of Deming and Republican Stuart Ingle of Portales, are sponsoring the compromise bill. Both previously supported Martinez’s repeal initiatives.

Smith, who presented the compromise bill to the committee, said he was tired of the long, bitter political standoff over driver’s licenses.

“Senator Ingle and I began talking early in the session, and we said, ‘My gosh, we’ve got to come together on this,’ ” Smith said.

Marcela Diaz, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group Somos Un Pueblo Unido, said she was encouraged by the committee advancing the compromise bill.

“We think this is a real breakthrough. This has moved the conversation to a more thoughtful point on policy and one that does not punish immigrants,” Diaz said.

But she also criticized the three Republican committee members, Gay Kernan of Hobbs, Ron Griggs of Alamogordo and Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho. Diaz said Republicans for years have said they wanted a bill to make the state compliant with Real ID Act, but then they voted against it when it was in front of them.

Brandt said he wanted to do more research to make sure the bill indeed would comport with the federal law, approved after the terrorist attacks of 2001 to tighten security. Griggs said he also wanted to review the bill more carefully.

Allen Sánchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, saw the bill as a means of opening the door for Republicans simpy to offer a substitute proposal that would be harsher on immigrants.

“I am afraid this is a Trojan horse on its way to the floor,” Sánchez said.

The state’s three Catholic bishops want driver’s licenses for immigrants to be continued because they say the law helps families earn a living and educate their children. An estimated 100,000 foreign nationals have New Mexico driver’s licenses.

Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, was one of the five Democrats who voted for the compromise bill.

“As a state legislator, I truly regret how politicized this issue has become,” he said.

O’Neill, without mentioning Martinez by name, criticized her. “This driver’s license issue has nothing to do with policy. It is all about politics.”

Members of Martinez’s Motor Vehicle Division did not speak against the compromise bill. This also was a change, as Martinez’s administration has steadfastly pushed for a repeal of the driver’s license law, not a legitimate two-tiered system in which immigrants would have a demarcated license.

Contact Milan Simonich at 986-3080 or msimonich@sfnewmexican.com. Follow his Ringside Seat column and blog at santafenewmexican.com.