The state House on Thursday passed a bill to halt New Mexico’s issuance of driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally, sending it to the Senate and an uncertain future.
The House voted 39-29 for the legislation, with all 37 Republicans and two Democrats in favor.
Repealing the 2003 law that allows for those licenses has been a top priority for Republican Gov. Susana Martinez since she was elected in 2010 and has been made a campaign issue in legislative races.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, said the 2003 law was a mistake. His bill, he said, is an effort to make New Mexico driver’s licenses more secure and to meet the requirements of the federal REAL ID Act.
“I am trying to make the state safer,” Pacheco said during a three-hour debate on the House floor.
Opponents of repeal said the administration is playing politics with the issue, the driver’s license fraud it repeatedly cites has been exaggerated, and the bill could be unconstitutional.
The House has twice before – in 2011 and 2012 – passed similar legislation, only to have it die in the Senate. This year’s outcome in the House was assured because Republicans control the chamber as a result of the 2014 general election.
Under House Bill 32, licenses already held by immigrants who are in the country illegally would remain valid until they expired, but could not be renewed.
“Once they were expired, my goal for them would be that they would attempt to get the necessary documentation … the proper stuff for a driver’s license,” Pacheco said.
Foreign nationals who document they are authorized to be in the country could get limited driver’s licenses, which would expire when the authorization ended, under the bill.
Pacheco described the legislation as “legally sound.”
The federal REAL ID Act aimed at standardizing state identification cards after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The bill’s opponents said New Mexico could come into line with the federal law without having to discontinue licenses for immigrants.
Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, offered an alternative he said would solve the problem of REAL ID compliance.
It would have made available gold-starred, REAL ID-compliant licenses to those who want them and can qualify for them, and regular licenses for others – including those in the country illegally.
The proposed substitute, which essentially would have created a two-tiered system of licenses, was rejected 38-30.
Democrats opposed to House Bill 32 said it would effectively criminalize tens of thousands of New Mexicans who would no longer be able to legally drive or to register and insure their vehicles.
Parents of an estimated 90,000 children would no longer be able to take them to school, church, doctors’ appointments or hospitals, opponents said.
“When we punish an undocumented immigrant for nothing more than wanting to provide for their children … you punish every single one of us,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque.
“So stop playing politics with our families. Stop playing politics with our kids’ lives. Stop punishing us,” Martinez said.
Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, said the New Mexico Sheriffs Association and the Fraternal Order of Police support repeal of the law, because they don’t believe it has made streets safer or lowered the incidence of uninsured drivers.
But Rep. Patricio Ruiloba, D-Albuquerque, said that since the 2003 law passed, “it’s been easier for law enforcement to conduct investigations, identify the people that are victimizing our community.”
Ruiloba, a former Albuquerque police officer currently working with Albuquerque Public Schools, said the ability to identify drivers makes traffic stops less dangerous for police.
Democratic Reps. Stephanie Garcia Richard of Los Alamos and Dona Irwin of Deming joined Republicans in voting for the bill. Absent were Democratic Reps. Luciano “Lucky” Varela of Santa Fe and Patricia Roybal Caballero of Albuquerque.