Political fight over driver's licenses pitched heading into session


Posted: January 17, 2016

By Uriel J. Garcia
The New Mexican

In each of the past five regular legislative sessions, Republican lawmakers have tried to repeal the state law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. They were acting on Gov. Susana Martinez’s campaign promise, first made in 2010. Each of Martinez’s attempts failed.

This year, House Republicans and the governor have given up on a repeal. Instead, at least some House members want to rewrite the law so that immigrants would receive one-year driving privilege cards instead of licenses that could be valid for up to eight years. The privilege cards would not be recognized for federal purposes, such as entering secure government installations or boarding a domestic flight.

In a television ad paid for by a group friendly to Martinez, the political committee Advance New Mexico Now, the governor says the driver’s license law must be repealed. But then she endorses the bill that would allow driving privilege cards for immigrants. Martinez opposed a similar Republican-sponsored bill for privilege cards in 2011.

If Martinez is unhappy about losing her fight to repeal the law, Democrats are just as displeased with what she is proposing instead. They say the bill for privilege cards would make them so hard to obtain that it would dissuade immigrants from applying. Among other restrictions, the bill would require an applicant to prove to the state Motor Vehicle Division that he or she “has continuously been a resident in New Mexico for the preceding two years.”

Democrats say they favor a compromise closer to the existing law because immigrants are important to the state’s oil, farming and dairy industries. For example, Mexican nationals compose almost the entire crew of harvesters for green chile, the state’s most famous crop. Advocates of driver’s licenses for immigrants say these workers ought to be able to lawfully drive to jobs that keep the state’s economy moving.

Opponents of the Republican bill on driving privilege cards have another concern. The Santa Fe-based immigrant-rights group, Somos Un Pueblo Unido, opposes the measure because it says undocumented immigrants would be the only segment of the population with a privilege card, subjecting them to harassment by police officers.

“It unnecessarily discriminates against the over 90,000 New Mexicans, immigrant families who live, work and pay taxes here, endangers minorities already vulnerable to discrimination and singles them out for deportation by state law enforcement who already report people over to [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement],” said Marcela Diaz, executive director of the group.

The political fight over driver’s licenses is especially pitched heading into the legislative session.

Martinez and House Republicans for months have said that New Mexico residents would need to buy passports to board domestic flights because state driver’s licenses weren’t compliant with the Real ID Act, a federal identification system. But a recent decision by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security changed that, at least until 2018. Homeland Security said residents of all 27 states that are not in compliance with the Real ID Act can continue using their state driver’s licenses to board flights for at least another two years.

In an appeal to the public for support, Martinez raised the issue of both air travel and access to military bases through a posting Friday on her Facebook page.

She wrote: “For years, I’ve been fighting to repeal the dangerous law that gives driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Unfortunately, it’s been blocked at every turn. Now, New Mexico licenses are no longer accepted as valid identification at various federal facilities, including White Sands and Sandia Labs. If the Legislature blocks reform again, New Mexicans will have to buy passports in order to board domestic flights in 2018.”

Democrats say it is Martinez who has been the obstacle to compromise, even when her fellow Republicans in the Senate worked with them to achieve a solution.

Last year, 11 Republican senators joined all 24 Democrats in approving a bill that would have created two tiers of driver’s licenses and made the state compliant with the Real ID law. One license would have been good for federal purposes and driving; the other just for driving. U.S. citizens who do not want a Real ID-compliant driver’s license could choose to obtain the other license, saving them the time and possible expense of presenting a birth certificate at a motor vehicle office to get a license that comports with the Real ID Act. Immigrants also would receive the license that could not be used for federal identification.

In order to receive a Real ID-compliant license, an applicant would have to visit a state Motor Vehicle Division and show either a birth certificate to prove U.S. citizenship or a federal document proving that person is an immigrant with lawful status in America.

Martinez opposed the Senate compromise bill on two tiers of licenses, but it still cleared that chamber 35-5 before dying in the House of Representatives. In turn, senators killed a Martinez-favored bill to repeal the driver’s license law for immigrants.

One Democrat in the House of Representatives said the Senate measure should be revived as soon as the legislative session starts Tuesday. “The House Republicans have lost all moral authority on this issue. Let’s pass the Senate compromise bill the first week of the session and solve the problem,” said Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque.

This year’s bill for driving privilege cards is being sponsored by Reps. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, and Andy Nuñez, R-Hatch. Other Republicans and one Democrat in the House have alternative bills related to compliance with the Real ID Act.

A bill by Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, would create a Real ID-compliant license or an identification card. Undocumented immigrants or people who don’t want a license compliant with the federal law could obtain an alternative license that wouldn’t be recognized for federal purposes.

Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, has introduced a measure similar to Rehm’s. “I hope we can get it done this year because it has affected people’s lives in New Mexico,” Bandy said. “And the longer we wait, it’s going to affect more people.”

Another bill sponsored by Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, would create a Real ID-compliant identification card but not deal with driver’s licenses. People who want or need a Real ID-compliant identification card could obtain one by proving they are U.S. citizens or immigrants with lawful status.

Garcia Richard in the last legislative session voted with Republicans to repeal the immigrant driver’s license law. She said her bill this time would stop the politicking over the driver’s license issue while giving New Mexicans a means to have identification that meets requirements of the Real ID law.

“While many of the proposals for Real ID look like a compromise, I don’t think any of them have enough support to pass the Legislature or be signed by the governor. This threatens any true fix of this issue in the upcoming legislative session,” Garcia Richard said.

She said she would continue to vote for the repeal of issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented New Mexicans if it came to that. But, she said, combining driver’s licenses with Real ID compliance has created a standoff in which legislation is unacceptable to one side or the other.