For Gov. Susana Martinez’s re-election campaign, the debate over border security and the surge of Central American immigrants into the U.S. apparently means this: It’s time to remind voters of her long-running objection to New Mexico issuing driver’s licenses to people in the country illegally.
Highlighting her effort to repeal the controversial 2003 law adopted during the term of Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, the Republican governor whipped out a campaign fundraising letter after touring the immigrant detention center in Artesia last week.
“Stand up to Washington’s immigration failure,” the fundraising letter said.
“Gov. Martinez has been working extremely hard to end the policy of our state granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. This is a public safety issue that puts our communities at risk and makes New Mexico a magnet for illegal immigrants,” Martinez’s campaign finance director Jessica Perez said in the letter.
With the driver’s license issue, Martinez’s campaign is also taking aim at her challenger in the governor’s race, Democratic Attorney General Gary King.
A recent Martinez campaign mailer depicts King holding a jumbo-sized New Mexico license issued to “illegal immigrant” and says: “Gary King’s plan for border security: Keep giving illegal immigrants driver’s licenses.”
The Martinez mailer goes on to say: “Every day, thousands of illegal immigrants cross our borders and we’re left holding the bag.”
The governor’s administration has argued for more than four years that the driver’s license issue is chiefly a public safety issue. Advocating for a repeal of the driver’s license law in 2012, Martinez chief of staff Keith Gardner told lawmakers: “This has never been an immigration issue. … This is simply about public safety and security.”
Leaders of fraud rings, bringing immigrants already in the country illegally to New Mexico to seek driver’s licenses, have been arrested and charged in at least 10 cases since 2010. Although a few other states have recently begun issuing unique driving privilege cards to immigrants in the country illegally, New Mexico is one of two states in the country that issues unrestricted driver’s licenses regardless of citizenship or immigration status.
The governor’s recent fundraising letter and flier criticizing King speaks to the broader immigration issue.
“Gary King is failing to lead on border security, just like Washington,” Martinez says in the campaign mailer targeting King for his stance on the driver’s license law.
King, while he continues to oppose repeal of the driver’s license provision, said the driver’s license issue is separate from the national immigration debate.
“That tie between driver’s licenses and immigration policy is really a failed argument, I think,” King said in an interview.
Martinez’s push to repeal the 2003 license law has failed in the Democratic-controlled legislature five times in the past four years. Meanwhile, polls have shown most New Mexico voters disapprove of the state’s driver’s license policies. A Journal Poll in 2012 found 71 percent of voters oppose issuing driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally.
King said he supports the state’s driver’s license law for the reasons the Richardson administration pushed for it in 2003: because it ensures all drivers in the state are identifiable to law enforcement and eligible for car insurance.
King defended his border-security record, saying he has made border issues a priority in his work as attorney general, including efforts to fight crime and drug-related money laundering rings that stem from Mexico.
“The AG’s Office while I’ve been attorney general has been very active in border security issues,” King said. “It’s very untrue for them to say I don’t care about border security or that some how or another this (driver’s license issue) relates to border security.”
King also questioned the claim that “thousands” of immigrants are illegally crossing “our borders” on a daily basis. The Martinez campaign indicated the reference was to crossings nationally.
A spokesman for the El Paso Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol – a region that encompasses New Mexico’s full border with Mexico – said this week that the sector stops an average of 32 immigrants illegally crossing per day.
Martinez campaign spokesman Chris Sanchez defended the mailer’s claim of “thousands” of immigrants illegally crossing each day by citing a national U.S. Border Patrol report that nearly 420,800 immigrants nationwide were stopped illegally crossing a U.S. border in 2013 – an average of about 1,150 per day nationwide.
“That’s just apprehensions – not crossings,” Sanchez said.