Family Feels Impact of License Law Battle

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By Uriel Garcia The New Mexican February 1, 2015 SANTA FE--Weekday mornings for Patrica go like this: She drives her 12-year-old daughter to El Camino Real Academy at 7 a.m. Next she takes her 24-year-old son to another school, where he works as a custodian.

Her morning commute doesn’t stop there. After dropping off her kids, she drives her 18-year-old Dodge truck to clients’ houses. She cleans up to five houses a day, and by the time she’s done with her work, her daughter is ready to be picked up at school. Her drive around town continues as she buys groceries or runs other errands before she picks up her son at 6 p.m. The family gets back to their Tesuque home at 7 p.m.

In all, she estimates she drives about 40 miles a day, and with peace of mind. That’s because for the past 12 years, New Mexico has allowed undocumented immigrants to legally obtain driver’s licenses.

That would change if Republican Gov. Susana Martinez gets her way in the 2015 legislative session now underway. With the GOP in control of the House for the first time in 60 years, Martinez has her best chance yet — after six failed tries — to find support for one of two bills that would repeal the 2003 law that allows undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses.

If the proposals get far enough in the process for a full Senate vote, it could be a close call because some Democrats have spoken in favor of repealing the law.

New Mexico became the second state in the nation to allow immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses without proof of legal residency, following Washington state, which passed a similar measure in 1993. Since then, eight more states have followed suit, including California and Connecticut this year, reflecting a steady but achingly slow trend for proponents of such measures.

An estimated 70,000 people, including Patricia, could be affected if New Mexico lawmakers reverse the current licensing provision.

A measure of how divisive the issue is could be seen Thursday during a packed hearing on the two repeal bills before the House Safety and Civil Affairs Committee. The committee voted along party lines to advance the bills, but not before nearly seven hours of emotionally charged debate.

Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, said the effort to repeal the law was “mean-spirited” and reminded her of stories from the Holocaust when Jews were rounded up in Nazi Germany and required to carry special IDs.

Another opponent of the bills, Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, evoked the Jim Crow era, saying the bills reminded her of the days “when black kids could not use white restrooms.”

Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, the committee chairman and one of the bill’s sponsors, said the legislation’s main target was foreign terrorists who could use the law to gain fraudulent identifications. He cited some of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers who had driver’s licenses. Rehm, a retired sheriff’s captain, also referred to an Albuquerque Journal poll that said some 70 percent of New Mexico residents want the licensing law repealed.

Rehm repeatedly referred to undocumented immigrants as “illegals.” Caballero bristled at the term, calling it “offensive.”

Patricia, who only wanted to be identified by her first name because she plans to attempt to legalize her immigration status, said lawmakers could debate about the issue all they want, but she doesn’t plan to stop driving if either bill becomes law.

“I don’t drive for pleasure,” said Patricia, who noted that the truck she drives belonged to a longtime friend who was recently deported to Mexico. “I drive out of necessity.”

In 1991, Patricia moved from Chihuahua, Mexico, to Nevada, where undocumented immigrants couldn’t apply for driver’s licenses until 2014. She then moved to Arizona, which also didn’t allow undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses. After construction jobs there dried up, she and her husband moved to Santa Fe. When the state’s 2003 law was approved, she said, she immediately took the tests needed to get her driver’s license. Since then, she said, she drives with the confidence of knowing she has all the proper documentation she needs to be on the road. A license meant she also was able to get auto insurance.

She and her husband have since divorced, she said, and as a single mother, she needs to drive — with or without a license.

“The only difference is that I would be running the risk of getting pulled over and getting a ticket,” if she didn’t have a license, she said.

Being required to appear in court for a traffic violation would not only affect her, she said, it also would affect her children: “How would I take my kids to school or work?”

Proponents of allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses say it makes the roads safer because immigrants are required to know traffic regulations and they must have their vehicles insured.

Martinez has called the immigrant license law “dangerous.” In the past, she has noted cases in which foreign nationals have illegally helped out-of-state undocumented immigrants obtain New Mexico licenses using fraudulent documents.

Martinez and lawmakers have said their proposals would still allow young immigrants who have qualified for President Barack Obama’s deferred action program to apply for a driver’s license. Under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, immigrants can obtain a three-year work permit and a Social Security card.

Patricia, who has two adult sons and one daughter, said it’s unfair that hardworking immigrants are being targeted because they simply want to provide for their children.

“I always ask myself everyday, ‘How would I get around [town] with out a car?’ ” she said.