Despite Governor’s Best Efforts, New Mexico Keeps Driver’s Licenses for the Undocumented

shutterstock_19948885By Joan Friedland, Senior Advisor to the National Immigration Law Center

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez has failed in her fourth attempt to persuade the New Mexico legislature to repeal the state’s driver’s license law.  The law, in effect since 2003, provides access to driver’s licenses for eligible applicants, regardless of their immigration status.  This year’s legislative session ended in New Mexico on March 16, after the House and Senate committees considered and rejected driver’s license restrictions.

This year, the governor supported faux compromise bills offered in the House (HB 606) and Senate (SB 521) that would have repealed the license law while allowing youth granted relief under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy to obtain a separate, marked, temporary license.  The bills treated DACA recipients, in effect, as an exception to a proposed ban on licenses for undocumented immigrants. But DACA recipients are lawfully present in the U.S. and are eligible for a Social Security number and work authorization.  Advocates condemned the bills as discriminatory and as offering no compromise at all.

As Marcela Diaz, director of Somos un Pueblo Unido, noted, “the bills were actually two steps backward and show the disconnect between the governor’s pro-immigrant stance on the national level and her anti-immigrant actions at home.”

The bills were touted as attempts to comply with the REAL ID Act, which requires proof of lawful status.  But the oddly worded measures did not mention proof of U.S. citizenship and required proof of “admission” to the U.S. for a specified period of time.  That approach would have excluded many lawfully present individuals such as asylees, green card applicants, or survivors of domestic violence with deferred action, who under REAL ID are eligible for a federally recognized license.

Fiscal Impact Reports for the House and Senate bills made clear that the Taxation and Revenue Department (the Motor Vehicle Division is part of Taxation and Revenue) would have needed additional resources in order to implement the bills.  But the agency did not ask for any new funds for this purpose.  The House Appropriations Committee tabled HB 606 complaining “it would be costly and burdensome to the Taxation and Revenue Department and … no plan had been developed to implement the new system.”

Cost, burden and the absence of a plan were critical deficiencies under the circumstances.  A 2012 Legislative Finance Committee report criticized virtually every aspect of the Motor Vehicle Division’s (MVD) operation – including its worst in the nation computer system.  The bills’ Fiscal Impact Reports pointed out that the bills did not include provisions to comply with the REAL ID Act provisions that are unrelated to immigration status, and that meeting those requirements would require costly re-engineering of the MVD’s IT system.

The bills in this session fared even worse than in previous years.  In 2012, the House approved a bill that would have repealed the law but the same proposal failed in the Senate.

The Governor set the tone for the legislative session with scare tactics — claiming that as of January 15, 2013 New Mexico residents would need a passport to board planes or enter federal buildings because the New Mexico driver’s license law did not comply with the REAL ID Act.  But that deadline did not apply to individuals and was, in any event, postponed – as was widely expected.  In the meantime, the misinformation caused a flurry of unnecessary applications for passports as 2013 approached.

Governor Martinez appears obsessed with repealing the state’s driver’s license law.  But as at least a dozen other states consider expanding access to driver’s licenses for immigrants, the governor continues to drive in the wrong direction.

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  • Susan

    Message to the governess: GIVE IT A REST!

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