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Arguments heard in trial for driver’s license fraud

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

LAS CRUCES – A federal jury on Monday heard the opening arguments in a case regarding a Chinese man who allegedly helped more than 50 undocumented immigrants obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses.

According to the indictment, Hai Gan, a legal permanent resident who lives outside Dallas, used three homes he owned in Albuquerque and Moriarty to establish residency in New Mexico for 51 undocumented immigrants living in other states. The complaint alleges he charged clients upward of $3,000 each to secure driver’s licenses between 2009 and 2011.

Gan has pleaded not guilty to 51 counts of fraud, eight counts of transporting undocumented immigrants, three counts of engaging in monetary transactions with illegally obtained funds and two counts of witness tampering.

“Some (cases) are about love,” U.S. attorney Randy Castellano told the jury in his opening remarks. “Some are about money. This case is about the love of money.”

Gan’s attorney, Francisco Ortiz, told the jury that his client would not disagree “with 90 percent of the testimony and evidence.” Ortiz described Gan’s clients as hard-working immigrants who entered the country legally but overstayed their visas and said Gan believed he was acting in accordance with the law.

“These people needed a driver’s license to drive their car, to get car insurance, so they could go to their jobs,” he said. “These are the people who sought him out.”

This is just the latest case dealing with a law that has become a hot-button issue in New Mexico, even as other states are relaxing requirements to broaden access to driver’s licenses or permits for immigrants.

Gov. Susana Martinez has proposed for a fourth year running that the state stop issuing driver’s licenses to immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. The measure has failed to pass in previous legislative sessions.

Eleven states plus Washington, D.C., now have laws that allow immigrants the chance to obtain a license or legal permit to drive, with the majority of those laws enacted last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Ortiz disputes claims that Gan knew his clients’ immigration status. He underscores that many flew to Albuquerque and were never questioned about their status.

But in May 2011, Border Patrol agents stopped Gan and two clients in a black Chevrolet Blazer at an I-25 checkpoint north of Las Cruces. Agents directed the vehicle to a secondary inspection after learning that the two passengers were not U.S. citizens and could not provide proof of legal status. Gan told agents he had brought the passengers to Las Cruces to obtain driver’s licenses.

“In New Mexico, they just want proof of residence,” Ortiz said during a court recess. “My client took it literally. He was literally following what the rule said.”