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Why are undocumented immigrant licenses in NM declining?

A recent article by Russell Contreras of the Associated Press pointed out that driver’s licenses issued to immigrants in New Mexico have steadily declined since 2010 and in 2014 were 70 percent below 2010 levels.

This statistic naturally caught my attention, given my research interests in uninsured motorists and driver’s licensing policy, both in New Mexico and nationwide. It should be noted that the statistics quoted in the article included all immigrants – those here both legally and illegally.

The AP article alludes to the possibility that the decline coincides with Gov. Susana Martinez’s term in office. It is well-known that Martinez has made multiple attempts to compel the state Legislature to repeal the law that allows undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses.

Perhaps such efforts by the state’s chief executive officer have created a perception among undocumented immigrants and their supporters that is less than welcoming. Could it be as simple as a reduction in the number of immigrants residing in New Mexico? Accurately estimating the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. is a challenging task, as evidenced by some estimates differing by as much as 10 million persons.

While there are a variety of reasons for an immigrant to relocate here, a likely source for a relatively concentrated number of authorized immigrants is international student enrollment at the two largest universities in the state.

According to student enrollment reports available at the University of New Mexico’s Office of Institutional Analytics, combined spring/fall enrollments of international students from 2010-2014 actually increased by 24.5 percent. Similarly in New Mexico State University’s case, the department of International Student & Scholar Services also reported an increase during the same time frame of plus 15 percent.

Perhaps a more plausible explanation for changes in the number of licenses issued to immigrants is due to policies enacted in other states.

Demand for New Mexico driver’s licenses actually went up for a few months in 2009 and 2010, and some believe that much of the increase was due to a sweeping immigration crackdown in neighboring Arizona.

The decrease in licenses issued to immigrants referred to in the AP article may be related to an increase in the number of states now providing access to some form of state driver’s licenses or cards, regardless of immigration status.

From 2005 until the end of 2013, there were only three states that allowed undocumented immigrants access to a state-issued driver’s license: New Mexico, Utah and Washington.

The licenses issued in Utah were somewhat restrictive, Utah actually created a two-tier system that assures undocumented aliens will get a special license valid only in the state. Motorists who are legal residents or citizens receive a “regular” driver’s license and illegal aliens get a driving privilege card, which can’t be used as identification at places such as airports.

As of January 2015 at least 10 states and the District of Columbia now provide access to driver’s licenses or cards, regardless of immigration status.

Because of these additional jurisdictions issuing such licenses, the level of fraudulent activity has likely been mitigated somewhat, at least in New Mexico.

A broad driver’s licensing policy may still be considered dangerous as criminals and terrorists could potentially use driver’s licenses to blend into society in order to ultimately commit terrorist acts and other crimes. However, the level of “driver’s license tourism” experienced by the state when undocumented immigrants enter the state and deceptively use a local address to obtain a New Mexico license should decrease as other states implement their respective licensing policies.

Tim Query is the Mountain States Insurance Group Endowed Chair Holder at NMSU.

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