Poll: Most registered voters back driver's licenses for immigrants

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Posted: Monday, January 18, 2016 8:15 pm | Updated: 8:40 pm, Mon Jan 18, 2016.

ALBUQUERQUE — A majority of New Mexicans support a legislative proposal that would make the state compliant with the federal Real ID Act while still allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license, according to a poll commissioned by immigration advocates that was released Monday.

The telephone survey conducted this month by Latino Decisions, an Albuquerque-based national polling firm, found that 56 percent of registered voters favor a law that would allow eligible applicants to choose a Real ID-compliant license while still allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a license that wouldn’t be recognized for federal purposes, such as entering secure government buildings.

Thirty-nine percent of respondents disapproved of such a proposal and 4 percent didn’t have an opinion, the poll results showed.

In the past legislative session, 11 Republican senators joined all 24 Democrats in the Senate in approving such a bill on a 35-5 vote. But the measure died in the House of Representatives. Democrats are expected to propose such a bill in the current legislative session, which starts Tuesday.

Sponsors of the poll said it also found that 69 percent of respondents approved of allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license as long as there are stricter penalties for fraud cases and that those licenses state that they are aren’t valid for federal purposes. Twenty-seven percent disagreed with allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses, the results show.

Gabriel Sanchez, research director for Latino Decisions, said at a Monday news conference at the office of the New Mexico American Civil Liberties Union that the results didn’t surprise him because New Mexico is more accepting of immigrants compared to other neighboring states.

“New Mexicans are not in this punitive mindset toward immigrants,” said Sanchez, who is also a political science associate professor at The University of New Mexico. “They actually have a very level-headed approach to policy issues related to immigrants and immigration more broadly.”

The poll also showed that 56 percent of those surveyed approve of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s job performance.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security in October sent the state a letter denying an extension to make New Mexico driver’s licenses compliant with the Real ID Act. While New Mexico driver’s licenses no longer can be used as identification to enter federal facilities such as military bases, the federal government recently delayed until 2018 a part of the law that requires the U.S. Transportation Security Administration to ask for Real ID-compliant credentials to board a commercial aircraft to fly domestically. Since the law passed in 2005 the federal government has repeatedly delayed this part of the law.

After the federal government denied an extension, many state residents were worried that they would need a passport to board a commercial flight within the U.S.

The release of the poll results came a day before the start of a 30-day legislative session in which how to make New Mexico licenses compliant with the federal law will be the subject of an ongoing political battle. Since the Department of Homeland Security denied the state an extension to implement the Real ID Act, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have offered proposals to fix it.

The bill that the Senate approved last year 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.

Martinez opposed the Senate compromise bill creating two tiers of licenses. She wanted a repeal of the immigrant driver’s license law. Her favored bill cleared the House but died in the Senate.

Through a spokesman, Martinez downplayed the poll, which was commissioned by Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a Santa Fe-based immigrant organization that supports the existing driver’s license law.

“Left-wing special interest groups might be able to trick a few gullible legislators with slanted poll questions that mischaracterize the issue,” said spokesman Michael Lonergan, adding, “but New Mexicans will not be so easily fooled if they try to continue giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, while making New Mexicans jump through special hoops to avoid having to use passports.”

Martinez has blamed Democrats, saying they stalled efforts to resolve the issue in past legislative sessions. In turn, many Democrats blame the governor, saying she has lied to residents about the need for a passport to fly domestically, using that as a pretext to argue for repeal of the 2003 state law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro, through a press aide dismissed the poll, saying the results are inaccurate and calling the group that commissioned the survey a “left-wing” organization.

“New Mexicans have been crystal clear: They want to end the dangerous practice of giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants,” said Emilee Cantrell, a spokeswoman for House Republicans. “This left-wing advocacy group’s cooked-up polling numbers are just as bungled today as they were in previous years. The Democrats need to do what’s right for New Mexico and stop kidding themselves about where the public stands on this issue.”

A bill by two House Republicans, Reps. Paul Pacheco of Albuquerque and Andy Nuñez of Hatch, proposes a system in which undocumented immigrants could obtain driving privilege cards. This is a concession from Pacheco and Nuñez, who previously sponsored bills to repeal all driving privileges for immigrants.

Immigrant advocates oppose Pacheco’s and Nuñez’s bill because they say such cards would result in harassment and possible deportation for undocumented immigrants who would be the only segment of the population to have such identification cards.

Sanchez said the poll taker explained the Real ID Act and the issues surrounding New Mexico driver’s licenses before recording a response. The survey also asked about voting policies and other immigration-related questions such as whether children and mothers who recently immigrated to the U.S. from Central America, fleeing violence, should be allowed to stay in the country.

The polling firm said it surveyed 500 registered voters statewide from Jan. 6 to Jan. 12. The firm said the poll has a 4.4 percent margin of error.

Contact Uriel Garcia at 986-3062 or ugarcia@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @ujohnnyg.