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Driver’s license repeal bill stalls in House

The Roundhouse in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Journal file)
The Roundhouse in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Journal file)
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SANTA FE – The latest effort in the Legislature to end the practice of issuing New Mexico driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally stalled Saturday in a House committee on a tied vote.

House Bill 127, sponsored by Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, and backed by Gov. Susana Martinez would eliminate the driver’s licenses issued to most of those immigrants, who have been eligible to get them under a 2003 New Mexico law.

The House Bill 127 change, however, would make an exception for immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children and granted a deferred immigration action status, Pacheco said. For those individuals, the state would issue a new, second-tier license that would be marked as “not for federal identification” and would have to be renewed annually.

“Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” immigration status was established by President Barack Obama in 2012 to shield immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents from federal deportation action. Immigrants are required to apply to the deferred-action program to qualify for the lawful immigration status.

Following more than three hours of debate in the House Labor and Human Resources Committee on Saturday, the proposal hung up on a party-line 4-4 tie that prevented the bill from advancing. Four Democrats voted to table the bill and four Republicans opposed the tabling.

“It’s very frustrating,” Pacheco said of the committee action. “I think that the issue is fairly simple.”

Pacheco said he wasn’t sure whether supporters of his proposed driver’s license repeal would again try to bring the bill before the full House, where Republican leaders think it has enough votes to pass.

Similar legislation was blocked in the same House committee last year. House Republicans then attempted but failed to bring the bill to the floor for a vote of all members and the bill died on adjournment.

Pacheco’s proposal represents the fifth time in the past four years the Legislature has debated repealing its 2003 law that allows driver’s licenses to be issued to immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

Republicans have argued the illegal immigrant licenses prevent New Mexico from complying with the federal REAL ID Act, which in 2005 established national requirements for state-issued licenses to be used to enter federal buildings or board commercial airplanes.

Republicans say that issuing the licenses has also made New Mexico a hotbed for document fraud and trafficking of immigrants attempting to get identification that can be used in other states.

“This is about trying to do the right thing,” Pacheco told committee members. “If it takes me coming to this committee another 20 times, I will continue to do it. This is not political for me.”

Democrats said Saturday there are alternative ways to comply with the REAL ID Act.

They also argued that repealing the law that allows licenses to be issued to immigrants here illegally would prevent tax-paying immigrants from getting to and from work and taking care of their children.

“The whole thing about criminal activity attributed to the driver’s license program is a manufactured crisis,” said Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, chairman of the Labor and Human Relations Committee. “It’s not that 97 percent of people in the drivers license program who are creating the crime. … It’s that 3 percent. We have that 3 percent corrupt element in all institutions in our country.”

Advocates for the repeal focused attention on concerns surrounding REAL ID compliance.

Supporters said that passing the driver’s license repeal this year is more urgent because the Department of Homeland Security has said it plans to begin enforcement this year of the repeatedly delayed REAL ID law.

Current New Mexico licenses alone would no longer be valid identification to enter certain federal buildings starting in October, said Demesia Padilla, secretary of the state Taxation and Revenue Department.

Restrictions under REAL ID on boarding airplanes are not scheduled to begin before 2016. Without changes to New Mexico identification cards, New Mexicans would be required to provide additional documentation or a U.S. passport in those circumstances.

“If we have not done anything other than sit on our thumbs, we as citizens of the state of New Mexico will all be facing the consequences,” Padilla said during the hearing Saturday at the Capitol.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, 21 states were in compliance with the REAL ID Act as of December 2013, when the new enforcement timeline was set. Twenty other states and territories, including New Mexico, were identified as working toward compliance.

House Speaker Ken Martinez, D-Grants, said the Legislature should focus on creating a new and enhanced REAL ID-compliant identification card for those who qualify under the federal law rather than attempting to stop thousands of immigrants in New Mexico from legally driving.

Martinez, a member of the committee meeting Saturday, also complained that the proposed driver’s license repeal bill would require legal deferred-action status immigrants – who currently qualify for a REAL ID-compliant license – to accept the lower tiered not-for-ID license.

He said other groups of immigrants, such as those receiving asylum in the U.S., who are eligible for a REAL ID-complaint license under federal law would not qualify for driving privileges in New Mexico under the proposed bill.

“If we take away driver’s licenses from people with lawful status, I think what we’ve done is an injustice,” Martinez said.

Legislation that would have created an enhanced New Mexico REAL ID-compliant identification card was introduced last year by Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, but never advanced.

Martinez said he would endorse a similar effort this session.

“I think we can do a REAL ID-compliant bill and get it through the Legislature in the next two weeks, but it can’t be a Trojan horse to have the (driver’s license) debate again,” Martinez said.

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