By Milan Simonich Santa Fe New Mexican February 9, 2014 A bill to take driver’s licenses away from about 85,000 New Mexico residents who do not have proof of immigration status stalled again Saturday in a tie vote after a heated debate in the House Labor and Human Resources Committee.
Four Democrats on the committee voted to block the bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Paul Pacheco of Albuquerque. The measure, calling for repeal of a 2003 law that enables New Mexico residents who are in the country unlawfully to receive a driver’s license, is now stuck in the committee and unlikely to make it through the Legislature for the fourth consecutive year.
House Speaker Kenny Martinez, who sits on the labor committee, led the opposition to Pacheco’s bill. Martinez said the measure would strip driver’s licenses from nine classes of legal immigrants.
“Is it your intent to take away driver’s licenses from people who have lawful status?” he asked.
Pacheco had a tart reply: “I think you’re being selective in what you’re reading.”
Martinez said the bill was fueled by xenophobia and brought for political purposes, not to solve any problem.
Pacheco, a retired police officer, said he resented those characterizations. He said politics had nothing to do with his decision to carry the bill.
Pacheco could still try to move the bill through the full House of Representatives by seeking an extraordinary floor vote. He attempted that maneuver last year, but it failed. He said he was uncertain what his next step would be. But he was pessimistic that his bill could clear the state Senate, even if he gets it through the House of Representatives.
“My gut feeling is probably not,” he said.
Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, campaigned hard in 2010 to repeal the licensing law and has pushed for the change in every legislative session since.
Pacheco’s repeal bill would grant provisional driver’s licenses to young people who have a lawful presence in the country under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Those residents now qualify for full-fledged licenses.
Pacheco said he believes the state has to repeal the licensing law to curb fraud in motor vehicle field offices and to make sure New Mexico can comply with the Real ID Act, a federal law that sets requirements for state driver’s licenses and identification cards to be accepted as ID for official purposes, such as boarding a plane.
Demesia Padilla, secretary of the state Taxation and Revenue Department, testified that a failure to meet requirements of the Real ID Act by Oct. 10 would be costly to New Mexico residents. She said they would need passports, not New Mexico driver’s licenses, to board airplanes.
Opponents of the repeal bill, including the ACLU of New Mexico, said Padilla was wrong to presume that the Real ID Act eventually will be enforced. Implementation of the measure, approved by Congress in 2005, has continually been delayed. As of January, only 21 states were in compliance.
“Over half the states in the country are not in compliance with this unpopular and unfunded mandate,” said Steven Allen of the ACLU. “It is inconceivable that the federal government would follow through on their threats to ban half the country from flying on an airplane or entering a federal building.”
In December, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced it would not enforce Real ID requirements to board airplanes until 2016 at the earliest.
Speaker Martinez said New Mexico could meet all requirements of the Real ID law without taking away the driver’s licenses of immigrants. He said just such a bill was introduced last year by Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, and that he would be happy to revive it and make sure it was approved before the legislative session ends Feb. 20.
In his most fiery speech on the licensing law, Speaker Martinez said proponents of the repeal had “manufactured a crisis” over driver’s licenses instead of simply crafting a law to meet Real ID requirements.
Certain states that issue driver’s licenses to people who do not have proof of immigration status already are in compliance with the Real ID Act, he said.
Rep. Miguel Garcia, the labor committee chairman, was the original sponsor of the licensing law for immigrants. He said it had served the state well for a decade and should stay on the books.
Immigrant laborers are vital to the state’s oil, dairy and farm industries, Garcia said. The licensing law allows them to drive to work without fear, and their names and addresses are contained in police databases, improving public safety, he said.
Numerous police organizations, however, testified in favor of repealing the licensing law. An exception was the Santa Fe Police Department, which supports it.
Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, said the licensing law was supposed to increase the number of insured motorists in New Mexico, but it has not done so. The state remains among the worst statistically for motorists driving without car insurance, she said.
Defenders of the law counter that foreign nationals account for only about 5 percent of the 1.6 million people who have a New Mexico driver’s license. They say the problem of uninsured drivers includes plenty of U.S. citizens.
Just before the four-hour hearing concluded with the tie vote, Pacheco said he was representing the public’s will.
“I get phone calls and emails every day from people who want the law repealed,” he said. “… This is about trying to do the right thing.”
But Marcela Diaz, executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a Santa Fe-based immigrant rights group, said the repeal bill ran out of steam long ago.
“This is a dead issue. It’s time the governor and our legislators move on,” she said.