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Lawmakers gear up again for driver’s license repeal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Republicans in the New Mexico House are renewing their efforts to repeal a state law that allows issuance of driver’s licenses to immigrants who are in the country illegally – and this time the GOP has a majority.

The draft legislation filed Tuesday by Reps. Paul Pacheco of Albuquerque and Andy Nuñez of Hatch closely matches proposals that failed in 2013 and 2014 and is similar in principle to efforts in the two previous years. Republicans won control of the House in the November general election, and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, just re-elected, has pushed for repeal of the law since first taking office in 2011.

The bill will come up for debate when the Legislature convenes on Jan. 20. The legislation would also attempt to bring New Mexico into compliance with the federal REAL ID Act.

Supporters of the repeal say the state’s practice of issuing licenses to unauthorized immigrants prevents New Mexico from complying with the federal law.

The REAL ID Act, enacted in 2005, attempted to standardize state identification cards after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but enforcement of the law that would limit the ability to fly commercial airlines or enter federal buildings without a REAL ID-compliant identification card has repeatedly been delayed at the federal level. New Mexico is one of 26 states or territories granted an extension of the REAL ID Act enforcement. But airplane-boarding restrictions could start in 2015.

New Mexico is one of just two states that issue unrestricted driver’s licenses to immigrants who are in the country illegally. Eight other states have since enacted laws allowing restricted driving privileges for unauthorized immigrants.

“The reality is if we don’t get this taken care of, we will start having to have passports to get on airplanes and secondary IDs,” Pacheco told the Journal . “It’s just unnecessary.”

The House Republicans’ proposal to repeal the driver’s license law would replace the controversial practice with a new two-tiered license system.

U.S. citizens and lawful foreign nationals would be eligible for a new license designed to be REAL ID-compliant.

New Mexico residents granted deferred deportation action status by the federal government would be eligible for a lower-tier New Mexico license designated as non-REAL ID-compliant. But no New Mexico driver’s licenses or permits would be available to immigrants in the country illegally who also do not qualify for a deferred action status designation.

The renewed effort comes on the heels of a 2010 campaign pledge by Martinez to repeal the law, which Martinez and other Republicans have cast as a public safety threat attracting criminals from around the United States to New Mexico for a driver’s license that can be used elsewhere.

Opinion polls have repeatedly shown wide majority voter support for repeal, with the last Journal poll earlier this year showing 75 percent of New Mexico voters opposed the 2003 law that issues driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants.

Supporters of the current law have countered that issuing driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants is necessary to ensure law enforcement can identify drivers, and helps immigrants to hold jobs and care for their families. The bill originally was promoted as a way to reduce New Mexico’s uninsured motorist problem.

Pacheco argued in a prepared statement this week: “Providing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants has turned New Mexico into a magnet for criminal activity, leading to elaborate fraud rings and human trafficking. It is a dangerous practice that needs to be repealed once and for all.”

Republican backers of the license repeal, who had been in the House minority before the 2015 session, failed to get a floor vote on their two-tiered license proposal in 2013 and 2014. But they’re hoping their new majority control of the chamber won in the November election will give their effort momentum.

But the state Senate remains in the hands of a Democratic majority, and the full Senate never has voted on legislation to repeal the state’s 2003 driver’s license law.

The license repeal proposals repeatedly have died in the Senate Public Affairs Committee. The committee chairman, Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said he and others in the Senate will advocate for a compromise that allows for immigrants in the country illegally to retain driving privileges in New Mexico.

“Keep in mind that the Senate in the past had come up with a compromise that actually had some Republican support,” Ortiz y Pino said. “… We’re going to make an effort in the Senate to find some happy medium that protects the ability of people in the country without documents to at least get to work, go to school or make a doctor’s appointment on time.”

Although House Republicans’ proposal would grant immigrants with deferred action status a non-REAL ID-compliant license, language in the federal REAL ID Act specifically designates those individuals as being eligible to receive a license that does comply with REAL ID – meaning it can be used for travel.

Pacheco said the designation of deferred-action individuals using a lower-tiered license was proposed because of questions on how the federal government is interpreting the lawful immigration status. “I think this is more of a policy issue right now, that we are having a conflict with the federal government,” Pacheco said.

For individuals with deferred-action status, at least 44 other states have authorized issuing driver’s licenses, according to the National Immigration Law Center, a California-based immigrant advocacy group.