Legislature / News / Politics

Roundhouse 2013: The Driver’s License Debate

Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos via Compfight cc

By Robin Brown

— In a letter to Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Gov. Susana Martinez wrote: “I support the goals of the Real ID Act and its role in promoting our national security. I will once again be asking our Legislature to bring our driver’s license laws into full compliance during our upcoming legislative session.”

The governor has long made clear her intentions to repeal the New Mexico law that permits undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses. In December, concerns were raised that under the Real ID Act, New Mexicans might have to use passports to fly in the new year. The Real ID Act creates a set of standards for state licenses that includes proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate or Social Security card. [For more, read the Compass primer on Real ID.] On Dec. 20, Homeland Security extended the enforcement deadline, meaning New Mexico residents can still use their state-issued IDs to board planes.

Much like the Real ID Act, repeal of the states driver’s license law has been hotly contested. In a state with a Republican governor and Democratic majority in both the House and the Senate, it’s likely that the controversy will continue during the legislative session that started yesterday.

Safety First

For Marcela Diaz, director of Somos un Pueblo Unido, the Real ID Act is irrelevant to whether people should be able to get driver’s licenses. “Even if the Real ID Act were going to go into effect, the fact we give immigrants licenses is not the reason we’re not Real ID compliant.” Diaz believes there are so many requirements in the law, many citizens would have a hard time obtaining licenses, making Real ID compliance unrealistic in New Mexico. “It’s a wedge issue that is often successfully used to divide communities and distract voters from the real issues.”

Licenses are a requirement and not a privilege, she says. So, it seems unreasonable to Diaz that we should exempt a certain people. It makes the roads safer when everyone is registered and insured, she adds. “You don’t want to be driving on a road where there are unlicensed, uninsured, unregistered, unaccountable drivers on that road.”

Illinois has just become the fourth state to grant identification to undocumented immigrants, after New Mexico, Washington State, and Utah which allows immigrants to get permits but not licenses.

Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico, says Gov. Martinez has used the Real ID Act to scare people into supporting repeal of the state’s license law. “She’s trying to create phantoms of the federal government cracking down on New Mexico when there’s no indication that anything of the sort is going to take place,” he says.

From a civil liberties standpoint, says Simonson, barring some people from carrying ID creates problems. “When people can’t uniformly obtain driver’s licenses, it creates an incentive for law enforcement to inquire about immigration status and violate the barrier that separates proper law enforcement from federal immigration laws.” When that happens, he says, immigrants can no longer trust local police whether they’re documented or undocumented. “They can no longer trust police as a source of public safety.”

Security First

Andy Nuñez was an independent representative in the House. He spent 12 years in the state Legislature before losing his seat in the last election cycle. Nuñez sponsored measures to repeal the law allowing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. He says New Mexico has become a magnet for people looking to obtain fake documents for traveling. An easily obtained license is a tool for human traffickers, he adds

Because New Mexico is one of the few states with such relaxed driver’s license rules, Nuñez says it attracts a host of international criminals. “They’re charging big bucks, these people from all over the world, to come here and get driver’s licenses, and they’re not even from New Mexico.”

Nuñez cites a study done by the NMSU College of Business that says requiring licenses has had little effect on the number of insured drivers on the road. He originally supported the bill allowing licenses for undocumented immigrants when it passed in 2003. “That’s not the first mistake I ever made,” he remarks. Nuñez maintains that his support for repeal is based on his views and not politics.

Nuñez would support a one-year term for licensing undocumented immigrants as a compromise. “I’m 75, and I have to get a license every year. They get eight-year driver’s licenses.” For international criminals who abuse the law, a “one-year license won’t do them any good.” Because Martinez said she would veto any reform bill that wasn’t a complete repeal of what Gov. Bill Richardson signed, Nuñez didn’t push very hard on the one-year limit idea.

In Martinez’  2013 State of the State address, she told the Legislature to again work on putting an end to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, which would make New Mexico safer with regard to “human trafficking, fraud and crime rings.”

For Diaz of Somos un Pueblo Unido, the security argument doesn’t fly. “Taking away licenses from immigrants does nothing to tighten border security. It actually weakens border security because all of the sudden you have all of these people in and around the border who are not in the database anymore.”

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