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REAL ID denial rekindles New Mexico driver’s license debate

SANTA FE – With the federal government poised to clamp down on the use of New Mexico driver’s licenses for getting into federal facilities or onto airplanes, the issue of compliance with the federal REAL ID law has a renewed urgency for state lawmakers.

New Mexico has had a series of extensions, but the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently denied the Taxation and Revenue Department’s request for a further extension until October 2016.

At this point, it appears that federal facilities that require IDs from visitors to certain areas – Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories, for example – will stop accepting New Mexico driver’s licenses as of Jan. 10 and require alternatives such as passports.

The Department of Defense is still reviewing the situation, according to the 377th Air Base Wing’s public affairs office at Kirtland Air Force Base.

The earliest that airline travel might be affected – in the sense that identification other than New Mexico driver’s licenses might be required – is next spring, according to the four Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation.

U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, and Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Michelle Lujan Grisham said it’s clear that “the state Legislature and the governor must take action” to ensure continued access to federal facilities and airports.

“Eventually, the horse comes home to the barn,” said state Senate Republican Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales. “We’ve got to do something. Period.”

Complying with REAL ID – an effort to standardize state ID cards after the 9/11 terrorist attacks – has become entangled with the political debate over whether immigrants who are in New Mexico illegally should continue to be able to get driver’s licenses.

Gov. Susana Martinez will again put the immigrant driver’s licenses issue on the agenda for the 2016 legislative session that begins Jan. 19, her office confirmed Friday.

The REAL ID law, passed in 2005, governs what’s required in order to get into federal facilities and nuclear power plants, and on commercial airliners. It doesn’t affect other uses of driver’s licenses – for example, for voting or for getting federal benefits – and it doesn’t require anyone to present ID at a federal facility where it’s not currently required.

There are 27 other states that still aren’t fully compliant with REAL ID, and some states have passed laws that prohibit its implementation.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico says denying the extension is a “bullying tactic meant to force New Mexico into accepting a national ID card that nobody wants or needs.”

REAL ID tramples civil liberties and puts citizens’ personal information at risk “while doing little to make us safer,” the ACLU contends.

Two-tier option failed

Martinez has zealously pushed for the past five years to get legislators to repeal the 2003 law that allows immigrants who are here illegally to be licensed and she has targeted at election time those legislators who disagree.

A repeal would make New Mexico licenses compliant with REAL ID – as long as state officials have also completed a number of changes in the licensing process and the design of the licenses themselves, that are required under REAL ID.

But there’s another approach, one that had the overwhelming support of the Senate and the backing of nearly all House Democrats in the 2015 legislative session.

New Mexico could comply with REAL ID by having two types of licenses: one for drivers who can prove they’re in the country legally – which would be REAL ID-compliant – and another for those who can’t prove lawful residence or who don’t want to go along with REAL ID.

The Democratic-run Senate, with the support of most Republicans – and the GOP’s Ingle as a co-sponsor – passed such a two-tier bill on a vote of 35-5.

The Republican-controlled House never voted on that bill.

Critics said it was a backward approach that would have allowed immigrants in the country illegally to keep their existing licenses while others had to jump through hoops to get a REAL ID-compliant license.

The House ended up approving 39-29 a Martinez-backed bill to simply halt issuance of licenses to immigrants who are here illegally. It died in the Senate.

Also in the mix: The Martinez administration has floated a proposal for what it called a “true two-tier” system: a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license and a driving privilege card for immigrants in the country illegally.

Immigrants rights groups call that a “scarlet letter” system and have resisted it.

In the end, none of those hotly debated changes became law, and each side accused the other of partisanship and obstructionism.

New Mexico’s four Democrats in Congress called the two-tier bill that passed the state Senate “a pragmatic, bipartisan solution” that makes the state REAL ID-compliant “and ensures all New Mexico drivers can continue to drive legally and safely.”

The Republican governor, however, insists that it’s a “dangerous practice” to license immigrants who are not in the country legally.

“She has made numerous compromises and believes it’s time that the Senate Democratic leadership allow an up or down vote on this issue,” her spokesman, Michael Lonergan, said Friday.