ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — My column in Tuesday’s paper about Hispanics and the Republican Party hit a nerve with some readers who asked why I didn’t delve into Gov. Susana Martinez’s push to repeal New Mexico’s law allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.
I sought out Martinez and Rep. Steve Pearce – the state’s highest-ranking Republicans – to comment on the Nov. 6 elections and how the Republican Party might improve on their dismal performance among Hispanic voters.
Some readers said Martinez, who suggested that the GOP tone down its immigration-related rhetoric, was engaging in disingenuous rhetoric herself.
“I just feel that she’s inconsistent and it’s really hard for me to believe her when she says stuff like this,” one reader wrote. “I feel like they are opportunistic statements, and I feel insulted as Hispanic women that she is on this pedestal when she is using this drivers license issue as a wedge issue in a state that is proud of their Hispanic heritage/culture.”
Another reader accused me of “cheerleading” for the governor. He said Martinez’s stance on drivers licenses for illegal immigrants is “idiotic” and that she has ”zero credibility because she vetoed a compromise bill on drivers’ licenses.”
Again, my column wasn’t about Martinez’s stance on driver’s licenses. It was about Republicans and the Hispanic vote, but the driver’s license issue is certainly relevant. And I did, in fact, ask Martinez about it. Specifically, I asked if her position “alienates” Hispanics. I didn’t include her response in the column in part because I saw it as somewhat tangential to my question about strategy prescriptions for an ailing political party, and in part because what she said just wasn’t that compelling.
Martinez essentially said the driver’s license issue is bigger than politics.
“Repealing that law is a public safety issue because New Mexico has become a magnet for organized crime,” the former Dona Ana County prosecutor said in part. “We have individuals who are trafficking humans from all over the world, not just from Mexico and providing them with fraudulent documents.”
An October poll by Latino Decisions, a Seattle-based polling firm specializing in Hispanic opinion, found that 70 percent of New Mexico Hispanics support allowing illegal immigrants to get a driver’s license – but only with stricter requirements than those in the current law, including beefed-up identity and residency requirements, more frequent renewals and tougher penalties for fraud.
A Journal poll in 2010 showed that 72 percent of all New Mexico voters – regardless of ethnicity – opposed New Mexico’s driver’s license law. Twenty percent favored the law, 6 percent had mixed feelings and 2 percent didn’t know or wouldn’t say. The same poll found that 67 percent of New Mexico Hispanics opposed the state’s existing driver’s license law enacted under former Gov. Bill Richardson.
On the subject of immigration reform, I asked Martinez if she supported a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country. In the wake of their pitiful showing among Hispanic voters in the Nov. 6 election, some Republicans are rethinking their strict deportation approach. Martinez didn’t take a crystal clear position.
“There is a lot of room between amnesty and deporting all illegals who are in this country, and keep in mind it’s not just Hispanics – it is people from all over the world,”Martinez said.
Martinez seemed to suggest that the U.S. could craft a policy that would give priority citizenship to the most productive of the illegal immigrants.
“Let’s say you came here as two-year-old with your family and you are a student at the university, there is a pathway to legal status, but not citizenship, and then you might have a priority when you graduate and you are a scientist and that priority may lead you to become a citizen quicker than someone who has legal status, permanent residency etc.
“Why wouldn’t we want to recruit and keep the best and the brightest and people who will help with the strength of our country?” the governor added.
But she also acknowledged that rounding up 12 million illegal immigrants and sending them home isn’t realistic.
“We can’t deport 12 million people – that just can’t happen – so you look at the group of 12 million people and say ‘what do we do with them’ — (make them) pay taxes – there is a lot of room for compromise and we have to work on that,” Martinez said. “Who is in college, who in the military, who has been here for 40 years?
“We embrace immigration but we also have to respect the people who have done it properly and have gone through the years in the process to become a citizen and we can’t just all of a sudden disrespect them and provide amnesty to all 12 million that are here,” Martinez said.
The governor also said a crackdown at the borders should be part of any immigration reform.
“When we start working on solutions, the border security is a very important piece because otherwise all we do is invite the next wave of illegal immigrants to come to the United States knowing that there will be another solution in 10 or 15 years,” Martinez said.