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Editorial: Lessons not learned from NM license debacle

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There are advocates who will champion the fact 11 states now offer driving privileges to illegal immigrants. But there’s an important difference with distinction that the advocates and the New Mexico Legislature are missing.

Only two of those states, New Mexico and Washington, offer full-fledged driver’s licenses to individuals in the country without documentation.

The other nine offer basic driving permits that cannot be used as a gold-plated ID to board an airplane, enter a federal building or apply for employment or public benefits.

And so those nine states have taken a more secure approach to what New Mexico set out to do in 2003, when it tried to bring illegal immigrants out of the shadows; school them on the rules of the road; and get them to register vehicles and pay insurance premiums.

Unfortunately, those nine states haven’t learned anything from New Mexico’s decade of failure to see those goals actually become a reality.

Safety was what sold New Mexico lawmakers and the public on the one-license-for-all-comers policy, and what is being touted as the rationale behind other states’ more restrictive permits, the latest courtesy of California. Last week Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown stood outside City Hall in Los Angeles and proclaimed “when a million people without their documents drive legally and with respect in the state of California, the rest of this country will have to stand up and take notice.”

Yet he and New Mexico’s Legislature have failed to take notice that the Land of Enchantment’s more expansive licenses have not moved the needle on insured motorists a bit – a New Mexico State University study puts the state second in the nation in uninsured drivers, 25.7 percent; the Insurance Research Council says New Mexico’s number of uninsured drivers was static from 2002-2008, between 25 and 30 percent.

Not only has New Mexico’s law failed to improve road safety in a measurable way, it has taken a detour to predatory criminal activity. It has made New Mexico the go-to destination for thugs who gouge the vulnerable individuals the law purports to help – immigrants not only from Mexico but Brazil, China, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Poland and Russia – creating a cottage industry where human smugglers charge those in the shadows thousands of dollars for an $18 license.

Gov. Susana Martinez has pushed hard in every session in her first term to get this ineffective law repealed; it has yet to get out of the Roundhouse.

Last session a bipartisan group of state lawmakers proposed a compromise creating a new driver’s permit for illegal immigrants that included the same caveats as the nine states with a second tier of driving privileges.

That plan, supported by Martinez, would have removed major security conflicts with federal law, including Real ID. Even that bill didn’t make it to the governor’s desk, though it is likely those permits would have been just as ineffective as the current driver’s licenses in improving road safety and the percentage of insured drivers.

A strong majority of New Mexicans polled support repealing the driver’s license law. The 2014 Legislature needs to stand up and take notice, as Brown says, not only of what other states are doing, but what has failed miserably in lawmakers’ own backyards.

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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