Copyright © 2012 Albuquerque JournalBy Dan BoydJournal Capitol Bureau
SANTA FE – A push to strike down the New Mexico law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses made it through the House of Representatives on Wednesday, setting up a showdown in the Senate for the second year in a row.
Members of the House voted 45-25 in favor of a bill that would repeal the 2003 law, with 11 Democrats joining Republicans and the chamber’s lone independent in support of the measure.
Meanwhile, a Senate committee endorsed a different approach later Wednesday – tightening the current law by imposing tougher residency requirements and stiffer fraud penalties on immigrant driver’s license applicants.
Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, has pressured the Democratic-controlled Legislature to overturn the law since taking office last year.
“The governor is pleased that a sweeping bipartisan majority in the House has voted to repeal the law that gives driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants,” Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell said Wednesday. “It’s time for the Senate to also stand with the people of New Mexico and repeal this dangerous law.”
Supporters of the current law maintain it makes state roads safer because it leads to more drivers having vehicle insurance. They have criticized Martinez for her stated refusal to sign any legislation that does not call for a full repeal.
“She has made it clear that this is not about public safety, it’s about immigration and politics,” said Elsa Lopez of the Santa-Fe based immigrant rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido following Wednesday’s House vote. “We’re tired of our families being used as a political football. All New Mexicans deserve serious solutions, not political grandstanding.”
The House passed legislation last year that would have struck down the 2003 law, which allows foreign nationals to obtain New Mexico licenses regardless of their immigration status.
However, that legislation was scuttled in the Senate, where members preferred keeping the current law intact but enacting tougher safeguards against fraud. The 2011 session ended without any bill on driver’s licenses being passed.
This year’s vote in the House drew a few more supporters than last year’s, which passed 42-28. Three Democrats – Reps. George Dodge of Santa Rosa, Henry “Kiki” Saavedra of Albuquerque and Nick Salazar of Ohkay Owingeh – voted in favor of the measure this year after initially voting against it in 2011.
New Mexico is one of only two states – Washington is the other – that allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Utah allows foreign nationals to get a more restrictive permit that can be used for driving but not for general identification purposes.
During Wednesday’s debate in the House, which lasted for nearly four hours, Democrats launched several attempts to pass alternative measures relating to driver’s licenses. One of those proposals, backed by Rep. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, would have adopted a Utah-type approach.
Several legislators who voted against the bill, HB 103, predicted that it will not be approved in the Senate, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 28-14.
Hours after the House vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-4 in favor of the alternative approach, sending it on to the Senate floor. That approach, SB 235, would also require illegal immigrants who apply for driver’s licenses to be fingerprinted and renew their licenses yearly.
Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, the sponsor of the 2003 legislation that was signed into law by then-Gov. Bill Richardson, said a compromise approach could shore up perceived weaknesses in the current law, while “taking driver’s licenses away from immigrants could mean putting 85,000 people on our roads without insurance.”
However, Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Texico, described the Senate-backed approach as an “illusion.”
Martinez, the state’s first-term Republican governor, has expressed similar sentiments and has suggested that voters who dislike the current law might vote legislative incumbents out of office in this year’s elections.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal