ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — After two years of legislative debate about whether the state should continue issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, nearly three-fourths of New Mexicans still don’t like the idea.
Seventy-one percent of likely New Mexican voters surveyed in a new Journal Poll said they oppose the 2003 state law that allows illegal immigrants to receive driver’s licenses.
Twenty-one percent of voters said they support the practice; 8 percent said they are undecided.
A Journal Poll in 2010, before efforts to end the practice were introduced at the state Capitol, found that 72 percent of voters opposed issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.
“The dialogue hasn’t changed in the last two years, and neither has public opinion,” pollster Brian Sanderoff said.
Gov. Susana Martinez, after her election in 2010, frequently cited the broad majority of voters who voiced opposition to the illegal immigrant driver’s licenses to defend her efforts to repeal the law during the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions.
Martinez argued that providing illegal immigrants with driver’s licenses was a public safety issue, and her administration cited instances in which out-of-state immigrants paid to be bused to New Mexico to acquire licenses using forged documents.
Martinez’s legislative effort, however, has been stymied by state Senate Democrats who have failed to act on legislation passed by the state House in each of the past two years to have the law repealed.
Many lawmakers who support the driver’s license law say it protects immigrants’ rights. They charge that Martinez has been unwilling to negotiate to alternative options that could allow immigrants to continue to drive without official state licenses.
Washington is the only state other than New Mexico that issues driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. The practice puts both states out of compliance with the federal Real ID Act, legislation designed to ensure state-issued identification cards are authentic.
But despite a rancorous political debate over the past two years, voter opinions have remained relatively unchanged, the Journal Poll found.
“We’ve had the governor making this matter one of her priorities,” Sanderoff said. “With numbers like this, I suspect she’ll keep bringing it up.”
The issue has become a factor in state legislative races as Republican-funded political action committees have begun targeting lawmakers who opposed a repeal for their stance on the issue, Sanderoff said.
Among voters who identified themselves as Hispanic, 62 percent said they were opposed to the law allowing driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.
Thirty percent of Hispanics said they supported the law, and 8 percent were undecided.
Voters who described themselves as Anglo more broadly opposed to the law, 75 percent to 17 percent.
“Although Hispanics are significantly more likely than Anglos to support it, even among Hispanics —by a 2:1 margin — they oppose it,” Sanderoff said.
The opposition to the immigrant driver’s licenses among Hispanics is likely caused by the state’s predominance of native New Mexican Hispanics and a comparatively low rate of immigrant Hispanics, Sanderoff said.
While Senate Democrats have been the most vocal supporters of the driver’s license law, 59 percent of registered Democrats said they oppose the practice, and 11 percent said they are undecided.
Ninety percent of Republicans said they oppose the law.
The largest share of support for the driver’s license law came from voters with the highest levels of education. Among those with graduate degrees, 35 percent said they support issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Still a majority, 56 percent, of those with graduate degrees said they opposed it.
Regionally, the strongest opposition to the law was found in the state’s northwestern corner, which includes Farmington. The Republican stronghold, featuring one of the state’s smallest Hispanic populations, opposed the law, 92 percent to 5 percent.
The state’s heavily Hispanic and primarily Democratic north-central region, including Santa Fe, Española and Taos, opposed the law, 50 percent to 37 percent.
The 2012 Journal Poll asked 402 likely voters: “Do you support or oppose New Mexico’s state law that allows driver’s licenses to be issued to foreign nationals, including illegal immigrants?”
In 2010 during the gubernatorial election campaign, 403 voters were asked: “New Mexico state law allows driver’s licenses to be issued to foreign nationals, including illegal immigrants. Supporters say this law reduces the numbers of uninsured drivers while opponents say it encourages more illegal immigrants to come to New Mexico. Do you favor or oppose this law?”
The new Journal Poll was conducted Sept. 3-6 by Research & Polling Inc. The poll is based on land line and cellphone interviews with voters statewide. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 4.9 percentage points. The margin of error grows for subsamples such as party affiliation, age, ethnic group, level of education and region.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal