The Democratic-dominated Senate, on a 35-5 bipartisan vote, has approved a two-tier system of driver’s licenses that would allow immigrants who are in the country illegally to continue to be licensed.
It’s opposed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who has tried for five years to persuade the Legislature to end the issuance of those licenses.
The bill passed and headed to the Republican-run House – which wasn’t expected to approve it – with barely more than 24 hours left in the 60-day legislative session.
The sponsors, a Democrat and a Republican, said the legislation acknowledged the reality of an immigrant workforce that needs driver’s licenses and the looming threat that the more stringent identification requirements of the federal REAL ID Act would be enforced.
“I had to modify my position,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who previously supported the governor’s repeal effort, told his colleagues.
“We’ve got to recognize reality and step to the plate and do what’s right,” Smith said.
“These are decisions we are here to make, and it is our time to make them,” said Senate Republican Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales, the other sponsor.
Smith said he fully expected support of the bill to become an issue in the 2016 election. Martinez has hammered legislative candidates who disagree with her on repeal.
Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, who voted against the bill, objected that issuing official documents to those who had entered the U.S. illegally “will essentially condone that behavior.”
Also voting against the bill were Republicans Mark Moores of Albuquerque, Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho, Lee Cotter of Las Cruces, and Cliff Pirtle of Roswell. Sen. Carroll Leavell, R-Jal, was absent. The other 11 Republicans and all the Democrats voted for it.
Sen. Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque, said not supporting the bill would be “enshrining the status quo.”
“People might say, ‘I want more.’ Well I do, too. But I don’t have more. … This is the bill we’ve got,” Payne said.
Senate Bill 653 would create two tiers: a regular license stamped “Not For Federal Purposes” that would be available to immigrants here illegally and any other New Mexicans who wanted it, and an enhanced, gold-starred license that would comply with the REAL ID Act and require proof of lawful presence.
The Martinez administration has argued the enhanced licenses wouldn’t be REAL ID-compliant because the legislation doesn’t specify all the requirements in federal law for getting those licenses. Smith says that could be done through rule-making; the administration says it can’t but hasn’t said why.
The administration also says the bill doesn’t match the REAL ID law in requirements for proving age.
Asked for comment on the Senate’s passage of the bill, Martinez’s office referred to a statement it issued after the bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee.
It said Senate Democrats were “opting for a proposal that already failed the House, isn’t REAL ID-compliant, and would not require secure IDs in New Mexico.”
The House more than a month ago passed, on a 39-29 vote, a bill backed by the governor that would halt the issuance of licenses to immigrants who are in the country illegally. It has been sitting in the Senate Public Affairs Committee.
During that debate, the House rejected an amendment that mirrored the Ingle-Smith bill.