Journal Poll: Thumbs down on licenses for immigrants here illegally

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexicans haven’t budged in their opposition to an 11-year-old state law that allows immigrants who are in the country illegally to obtain driver’s licenses, a new Journal Poll found.

Three-fourths of the likely voters who were polled opposed the law, echoing the findings of similar Journal Polls in 2012 and 2010.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez made repealing the law an issue when she first campaigned for office in 2010 and continues to advocate repeal as she runs for re-election this year.

She has not been able to persuade the Democratic-controlled Legislature to undo the law, however, despite repeated efforts over the past four years.

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a00_jd_23sept_immigrantsHer Democratic opponent in the Nov. 4 general election, Attorney General Gary King, supports keeping the law.

The Journal Poll asked this question: “Do you support or oppose New Mexico’s state law that allows driver’s licenses to be issued to immigrants who are in the country illegally?”

Seventy-five percent of those polled said they opposed it, while 20 percent said they supported it. Three percent had mixed feelings, and 2 percent didn’t know or wouldn’t say.

Earlier Journal Polls – also of likely voters – put the opposition at 72 percent and 71 percent.

Journal pollster Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc., said driver’s licenses for those who are in the country illegally “is not a top-of-mind issue.”

“It’s not what people talk about at the dinner table. They talk about jobs, education, crime,” the pollster said. But once it’s brought to voters’ attention, “people have strong opinions on it.”

The law, enacted in 2003, was opposed in the latest Journal survey by 90 percent of Republicans, 64 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of independents. The poll was conducted Sept. 9 through 11.

Gender and ethnicity were not factors in determining who was in opposition.

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Seventy-five percent of men, 75 percent of women, 73 percent of those who said they were Hispanic and 75 percent of those who said they were Anglo objected to the law.

Younger voters were more supportive of the current law than older voters, with 34 percent of those ages 18 to 34 in favor of it. Still, 59 percent of that group remained opposed.

The least support was found among voters ages 35 to 49, at 13 percent. Eighty-five percent of that group opposed it.

Among education levels, support for the law peaked at 35 percent among voters with post-college education or degrees; 59 percent of that group was opposed.

Regionally, the strongest opposition was in northwestern New Mexico, with 87 percent opposed. That was followed by the east side at 82 percent, the Albuquerque area and the south/southwest at 72 percent, and the north-central region at 70 percent.

The law was passed during the administration of Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, with supporters saying it would make all drivers identifiable to law enforcement and able to insure their vehicles.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws allowing immigrants who are in the country illegally to get some type of driver’s license or permit, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But only one other state, Washington, issues a full-fledged license like New Mexico’s.

Martinez says the license law makes the state “a magnet for illegal immigrants” as well as attracting fraudulent activity. Her administration contends it’s a public safety issue, not an immigration issue.

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There have been at least 10 high-profile cases since 2010 in which people have been charged in connection with fraud rings bringing immigrants already in the country illegally to New Mexico to try to get driver’s licenses.

The law also is out of line with the federal REAL ID Act, which in 2005 established national requirements for state-issued licenses used to enter federal buildings or board commercial airplanes. The law was passed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in which the airline hijackers used U.S. driver’s licenses, some of them obtained fraudulently.

Repeal legislation has twice passed the state House but failed in the Senate, which has proposed an alternative to tighten the licensing process and toughen fraud penalties, but not to abolish the law.

“Democrats are going to say, ‘If you give them a middle-ground option, the public supports that,’ ” said Gabriel Sanchez, associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. “My take is, the majority of the people would advocate for that kind of hybrid policy.”

Marcela Diaz, who heads the immigrant rights advocacy group Somos Un Pueblo Unido, calls the repeal effort “a fabricated wedge issue that lost its appeal years ago, as evidenced by the last election,” when pro-license forces picked up House seats.

The Journal Poll sample is based on a scientific, statewide survey of 500 voters who cast ballots in the 2010 and 2012 elections and said they are likely to vote again this year.

The margin of error for the full sample of voters is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

All interviews were conducted live by professional interviewers, with multiple callbacks to households that did not initially answer the phone. Both landlines (73 percent) and cellphone numbers (27 percent) of proven general election voters were used.

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