House to vote on bill replacing licenses with driving privilege cards

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By Deborah Baker / ABQ Journal Staff Writer

 

SANTA FE – Legislation that would replace driver’s licenses with driving privilege cards for immigrants who are in the country illegally is headed to a vote – probably Wednesday – on the House floor.

The House Judiciary Committee endorsed the bill just hours after hundreds of immigrant rights supporters rallied at the Capitol to oppose it, calling it discriminatory and punitive.

Minority Democrats tried to slow the progress of the legislation, which was fast-tracked by the House’s GOP leadership.

“What I see now is a train wreck,” said Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, who said the Senate would pass its own, Democratic-backed legislation.

House Bill 99 would create a driver’s license compliant with the federal Real ID law that all New Mexicans who are here legally would have to get.

Immigrants who cannot prove they are legally in the U.S. – who now can get driver’s licenses under a 2003 law – could apply for driving privilege cards that opponents of the bill say would amount to a “scarlet letter.”

Legislation pending in the Democratic-controlled Senate takes a different approach to bringing New Mexico in line with Real ID. Under Senate Bill 174, undocumented immigrants could still get licenses – although not Real ID-compliant – while everyone here legally could choose between that license or a Real ID compliant license.

The vote in the House Judiciary Committee after a sometimes-contentious hearing was 7 Republicans in favor of House Bill 99 and 6 Democrats against it.

It has the backing of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who wants to stop issuing licenses to undocumented immigrants but for the first time supports their getting driver’s privilege cards.

“With this two-tier compromise, not only will we end the dangerous law that gives driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, but also provide New Mexico citizens with a secure ID that they can use to board an aircraft without having to buy a passport,” Martinez’s spokesman, Chris Sanchez, said in a statement.

The state has two years before its licenses won’t be good for flying, but some federal installations are already clamping down on using licenses as the sole ID for entry.

Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla said that the main concern of the immigrant community has been being able to drive legally, and that the House bill satisfies that.

“I believe the administration has listened and has made the compromises to move us forward,” she told the Judiciary Committee.

But hundreds of protesters from around the state rallied outside the Capitol, chanting and waving signs such as “No Racismo” and “Keep My Parents Licensed.”

Allen Sanchez, representing the state’s Roman Catholic bishops, said the debate over driver’s licenses has progressed markedly from a few years ago, when the fight was over whether undocumented immigrants should be authorized to drive at all.

“The debate now has gone beyond the privilege of driving. … You’re going to drive,” he told a cheering crowd. “Now let’s do it with dignity.”

According to immigrant rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido, which organized the rally, about 500 people had registered at a lobbying training session before the Capitol rally.

Democrats said there are ways to crack down on driver’s license fraud without punishing immigrants.

House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said drivers with privilege cards indicating they are in the U.S. illegally could get into trouble at the border checkpoint between Las Cruces and Socorro.

Opponents also objected that the House bill doesn’t give most drivers a choice of whether to get a Real ID-compliant license.

“I kind of prefer you would let the citizen decide what driver’s license they want, not mandate to them. … There are citizens that just don’t want to opt into a federal ID,” Rep. Martinez said.

He urged the committee to slow down, take time to compare the House bill with the Senate bill, and figure out where compromise might be reached.

“I think we’re closer than we’ve ever been,” he said, adding that the Martinez administration has “moved substantially.”

Critics also said House Bill 99’s provisions – including fingerprinting and annual renewals for driving privilege cards – are so onerous that many immigrants simply wouldn’t get the licenses.

“People are going to drive regardless. … All they need is keys,” said Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque.

Maestas also said the fingerprinting required for driving privilege cards were “requirements only Donald Trump would love.”