Ringside Seat: Fact-checking the governor on driver's license issue

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Gov. Susana Martinez made an incendiary and false claim Tuesday in opposing the law that allows state residents without proof of immigration status to obtain a New Mexico driver’s license.

“New Mexico has been a target for human traffickers and smugglers seeking to take advantage of our laws,” Martinez said in the part of her State of the State address regarding immigrant driver’s licenses.

Human trafficking has a specific meaning, but Martinez twisted it to try to persuade people they should oppose the driver’s license law.

By definition, human trafficking is “the illegal movement of people, typically for the purposes of forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation.”

Nobody who is enslaved, either for prostitution or labor, is being brought to New Mexico to obtain a driver’s license. People who receive a driver’s license are listed in police databases. Police records are the last place that someone running a human trafficking ring would want to be registered. In addition, those involved in the evil of human trafficking would not allow the women they had enslaved to have driver’s licenses, a means for police to track them and arrest those exploiting them.

Even so, Martinez and her administration at least since 2012 have regularly said that “human trafficking” is one of the evils of the immigrant driver’s license law.

When pressed on what they mean, Martinez’s staff has redefined human trafficking. For instance, Martinez’s Cabinet secretary of taxation and revenue, Demesia Padilla, said immigrants from other states had paid handlers who brought them to New Mexico and provided them with fraudulent residency documents in hopes that they could obtain a driver’s license. Padilla has called this human trafficking.

In order for either an immigrant or a U.S. citizen to receive a New Mexico driver’s license under the existing law, he or she has to be a resident of the state. People who forge residency documents to try to obtain a driver’s license have been prosecuted for fraud, often in federal court.

Martinez also says the driver’s license law is dangerous because people who are not citizens of the United States receive a government-issued license that can be used for identification. That is her strongest argument against the law. But her claim that the licensing law has made the state “a target for human traffickers” is a scare tactic based on a lie.

New Mexico and Washington state were once the only two states that allowed people without proof of immigration status to obtain a driver’s license. Now California, Illinois, Colorado, Nevada and Utah are among the states that either allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license or driving privilege card.

Some of the other states have a driver’s licenses system that is compliant with the Real ID Act, an identification system ordered by the federal government. New Mexico now is not in compliance with the federal law, so there is extra pressure this legislative session on the driver’s license issue.

Martinez until recently advocated an outright repeal of the driver’s license law for immigrants. She has softened her position this session.

“Our compromise is the same as surrounding states,” she said in her speech. “It stops giving licenses to illegal immigrants from around the world, and it ensures our ID is secure. We’ve talked about it year after year. The discussion has been had. It’s time to solve this problem and vote.”

Actually, Martinez now is supporting a law that would allow certain immigrants to receive driving privilege cards. Two Republican members of the state House of Representatives introduced similar bills for driving privilege cards in 2011, but Martinez opposed those measures because she wanted the licensing law repealed.

As for the time being ripe to vote, Martinez ignored that state senators last year voted 35-5 for a bill that would have made the state compliant with the Real ID law and still allowed undocumented immigrants who live in New Mexico to obtain a driver’s license. Sens. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, and John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, introduced that bill because they said immigrants are important to the state’s economy, especially its dairies, farms and extraction industries.

The bill by Ingle and Smith died when the House of Representatives did not act on it. House members last year approved a repeal bill Martinez favored. Senators killed it.

Ringside Seat is a column about New Mexico’s people, politics and news. Follow the Ringside Seat blog at www.santafenewmexican.com. Contact Milan Simonich at 986-3080 or msimonich@sfnewmexican.com.