For the third time in a year, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez failed in her bid to repeal a 2003 state law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.
The 2012 New Mexico State Legislature adjourned this past week without approving repeal legislation supported by Republican Martinez and sponsored by State Rep. Andy Nuñez, a former Democrat and now Independent from Hatch. Nuñez represents a rural district in southern New Mexico’s Doña Ana County that has long depended on both documented and undocumented labor from Mexico.
As the legislative session picked up stream in January, the New Mexico State House overwhelmingly passed Nuñez’s HB 103 on a vote of 45-25. Democrats casting affirmative votes for repeal included Doña Ana County’s Joseph Cervantes, member of a prominent farming family.
“It is necessary for the public peace, health and safety that this act take effect immediately,” Nuñez’s bill stated when it was introduced.
But repeal boosters were soon stymied in the New Mexico State Senate, which instead voted 27 to 15 for a measure sponsored by Democrat Tim Jennings, who also represents a district in southeastern New Mexico where many immigrants work and live.
The Jennings bill, SB 235, would still have allowed undocumented residents to get driver’s licenses, but it imposed stricter residency requirements, anti-fraud verifications and fingerprinting for the first time. At the end of the session, both sides held their ground and legislative death was the winner.
Given the balance of immigration politics in the New Mexico State Legislature, the outcome jibed with pundits’ predictions that first-term Governor Martinez, who was unwilling to compromise on the issue, would get nowhere with her latest repeal effort.
An Associated Press report published during the legislative session was widely quoted as proof of pro-repeal advocates’ contentions that the state driver license issuing system was rife with fraud and abuse, making it an easy channel
for immigrant smugglers to acquire phony identification for people living outside New Mexico.
A closer reading of the story revealed that the Associated Press estimated that about 3 percent of the driver’s licenses in question granted from 2003 to 2011, or 2,662 licenses, were issued to 10 or more people at 170 specific addresses, thus raising suspicions of fraud. Nonetheless, the press agency conceded that it did not have a smoking gun.
“The licensing patterns found by the AP don’t conclusively prove fraud-tenant turnover in rental property, for example, could account for some licenses. And there can be legitimate reasons for multiple licenses issued at the same address” the story said, citing a case in which 56 licenses went to foreign military personnel stationed at Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo.
The Associated Press piece did not delve into details on how the 97 percent of the licenses presumably acquired correctly by state residents were being used.
On a broader note, the driver’s license issue continued to stir up a hornet’s nest in cyberspace, just as it had for much of 2011. Pro-repeal partisans laced many postings with politically-charged and/or outright racist language and symbolism .
“The Democrats who refuse to change the law are catering to ILLEGALS and should be brought up on charges of treason against the United States,” fulminated one commentator on an Albuquerque commercial news site. “democRATS continue to pander to Illegals,” another posting thundered.
A website called Legislators-for-illegals.com posted the names, addresses and pictures of anti-repeal lawmakers in the form of targets. It also depicted President Obama and Attorney General Holder dressed in stereotypical “Frito Bandito” Mexican clothing and tossed in pictures of chimpanzees and head-burying ostriches above the two officials.
On the other hand, pro-driver’s license forces built up a coalition of about 50 immigrant, labor, community and religious organizations from across the state. Immigrant advocates rallied hundreds of people from 15 New Mexico counties, and lobbied legislators to oppose the repeal drive and support the Jennings bill.
Besides supporting the ability of people who have worked for many years in this country to get to work or school and transport their families for routine and emergency needs, the coalition affirmed that licensing all drivers regardless of immigration status bolsters the public safety register and gets more people insured in a state long notorious for its high rate of uninsured motorists.
“This is the only piece of legislation that takes serious steps against fraud while keeping all residents of New Mexico licensed and insured,” Marcela Diaz, coalition activist, said of the Jennings legislation. Diaz is also the executive director of Somos un Pueblo Unido, a statewide immigrant and labor rights organization.
Attracting national attention and support from civil rights and pro-immigrant organizations, the anti-repeal movement was likewise endorsed by the Santa Fe City Council, the Santa Fe County Commission and the Town of Taos Council.
It remains to be seen if Gov. Martinez or other repeal supporters will attempt to gain political traction with the driver’s license controversy in the 2012 elections, or whether the issue will finally fade and politicians focus on other pressing issues of concern to the voters. As Frontera NorteSur was going to press, Governor Martinez had not yet issued a formal statement on the fate of repeal in the 2012 session of the New Mexico State Legislature.
Additional sources: Light of New Mexico, February 16, 2012. Article by Gwyneth Dolan. Santa Fe New Mexican, February 16, 2012. Associated Press, January 25, 2012. Article by Barry Massey. Krqe.com, January 28 and February 16, 2012. KOB/Associated Press, February 8, 2012.
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Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico
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