SANTA FE – As more states are preparing to give driving privileges to immigrants who illegally entered the U.S., New Mexico appears headed in the other direction.
The state is issuing fewer driver’s licenses to them, with the number of first-time licenses dropping 21 percent during the first half of this year, according to a review of state records by The Associated Press.
The reason for the abrupt decline remains unclear.
Officials in Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration say there’s been no recent crackdown by the Motor Vehicle Division, and the requirements for immigrants to obtain a license haven’t changed, although the governor has fought since 2011 to scrap the license policy.
An immigrant rights advocate suggests the weak economy may be a cause. The state economy has been lagging behind the broader national recovery, posting smaller job growth figures than national numbers in recent months.
“Immigrant workers generally go where they have family and where they have job opportunities. Clearly there aren’t many job opportunities in New Mexico,” said Marcela Diaz, executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a Santa Fe-based group that opposes efforts to stop licenses for immigrants.
New Mexico is among 11 states with laws to allow immigrants, regardless of their immigration status, to obtain a driver’s license or driving privilege card, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, most of those laws haven’t taken effect yet.
Washington and New Mexico have long offered the licenses to immigrants and have the broadest policies in the country because the same license granted to a U.S. citizen is available to immigrants, including those in the United States illegally.
In contrast to New Mexico’s double-digit decline this year, Washington state has had a 5 percent drop in first-time licenses for people without Social Security numbers, according to the state’s Department of Licensing. Washington issued 8,467 licenses in the first six months of the year.
In New Mexico, 3,082 new foreign national licenses were granted from January through June, down from 3,886 in the same period in 2012. However, license renewals for immigrants have remained relatively stable – declining only 2 percent in the first half of the year compared with 2012.
Martinez has made repealing the license law a centerpiece of her agenda in a state where Hispanics account for 47 percent of the population. She contends New Mexico has become a magnet for out-of-state immigrants seeking a license by falsely claiming they are residents of the state.
However, supporters in the Democratic-controlled Legislature contend the law improves public safety by having immigrant motorists obtain insurance and adding them to the government’s license database. Advocates also say immigrants need to be able to legally drive to jobs, doctor appointments and school.
Seven states, including Illinois, Colorado and Connecticut, enacted laws this year to create two-tier systems that grant immigrants the legal privilege to drive. But unlike in New Mexico, those cards or licenses can’t be used for identification, such as boarding an airplane or entering a federal building.
The two-tier approach is similar to what Utah has long done in offering a special driving permit to immigrants.
Illinois expects to start issuing temporary driver’s licenses to immigrants later this year. Other newly enacted laws won’t become effective until next year or 2015.
New Mexico has about 1.4 million licensed motorists and has issued nearly 105,000 foreign national driver’s licenses since 2003, according to figures from the Taxation and Revenue Department. However, officials do not know how many went to immigrants illegally living in the U.S. because applicants aren’t required to submit information about their immigration status.
After Martinez took office in 2011, the administration began to more closely scrutinize the identification and residency documents submitted by applicants. Before a permanent license is issued, documents are sent to tax agency fraud investigators.
The number of first-time licenses dropped by almost half in 2011 compared with Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson’s final year in office in 2010. Richardson championed the 2003 license law. Newly issued licenses decreased by 4 percent in 2012 and then steeply dropped this year.
Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla said there’s no backlog of license applications. Within the past year, the department has changed its license operations in the state’s largest city, Albuquerque, but Padilla said she doubted the change explains the license drop this year.
“At the end of the day, we still have a bad law on the books and we are still having to be diligent about what we do and how we issue these driver’s licenses,” Padilla said.