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Editorial: License Compromise Deserves a Hard Look

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Issuing driving permits rather than full licenses to illegal immigrants is not the best public policy. But it sure beats what New Mexico does now.

The state law in place since 2003 was sold to the public as a way to bring illegal immigrants out of the shadows and get them schooled on the rules of the road, registering their vehicles and paying insurance premiums. It continues to be defended on those terms.

But in practice, which conveys with it a gold-standard ID good at any airport in America, the law has spawned a cottage industry of human smugglers from not just Mexico but Brazil, China, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Poland and Russia. Thugs who gouge vulnerable individuals out of thousands of dollars for an $18, four-year license.

The Taxation and Revenue Department concluded through a sampling that a third of illegal immigrant licensees don’t live at the address they gave to the Motor Vehicle Division. Likely many trade up for a license from one of the 48 states that actually take national security into consideration. (Like New Mexico, Washington issues full licenses to illegal immigrants.)

In practice, the needle has not moved on insured motorists — a New Mexico State University study found the state ranks second in the nation in uninsured drivers, at 25.7 percent, and the Insurance Research Council says New Mexico’s number of uninsured drivers remained static, between 25 and 30 percent, from 2002-2008.

And in practice, the law violates the federal Real ID Act spawned by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by handing a state-of-the-art, tamper-proof government identification complete with holograms and biometric facial recognition to individuals who are not supposed to have them.

The best path would be to repeal what may have been a well-intentioned attempt at improving public safety but has in fact resulted in illegal, predatory and potentially dangerous consequences. But barring repeal, a compromise that removes all the benefits of a government ID and leaves only the ability to drive legally would be a move in the right direction.

Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, House Speaker Ken Martinez, D-Grants, and Senate Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, are considering a so-called Utah/Illinois compromise that would create a new driver’s permit for illegal immigrants. It would not be valid as identification to board a plane or enter a federal building.

This is an important shift, considering a strong majority of New Mexicans polled support repeal, and that in three previous Legislative sessions repeal has twice passed the House but failed to even come to a vote in the Senate — it was kept in the back room for fear it would pass.

And while Gov. Susana Martinez has fought since 2010 for repeal, she says she will consider a compromise if the driver’s permits cannot be used for identification or be transferred for use in another state.

The permit should look different from a full license — just as New Mexico’s under-age licenses do. It should be apparent that it is not valid for identification purposes or transferable to another state.

A straight repeal would be a cleaner, clearer method of ensuring New Mexico is no longer a gateway for the criminal activity of human smuggling for driver’s licenses. But restoring integrity to those licenses, and complying with national security measures, by providing illegal immigrants with a separate mechanism to drive legally may be the best option the Legislature can deliver and one the governor would be wise to consider.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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