SANTA FE – A bill touted as a compromise to bring New Mexico driver’s licenses in line with the federal Real ID law – and criticized by opponents as racist and discriminatory – cleared its first legislative hurdle Thursday.
Backed by House Republicans and GOP Gov. Susana Martinez, it would end driver’s licenses for immigrants who are here illegally and instead offer them driving privilege cards.
All other drivers would have to get licenses that were compliant with the stricter requirements of the federal Real ID law.
House Bill 99 passed the House Regulatory and Public Affairs Committee on a 4-3 vote, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed. It goes next to the Judiciary Committee.
Sponsor Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, said it was a compromise that would “put this issue to rest.”
The state’s failure to comply with the Real ID law has led to a crackdown on the use of state driver’s licenses as identification at some federal installations in New Mexico. Starting two years from now, the current licenses would not be sufficient as ID to board airplanes.
Democrats favor a different path to compliance: keep issuing driver’s licenses to immigrants who are not in the country legally, and offer a Real ID-compliant license to other drivers who want one. Legal residents would be eligible for either tier of license under that plan.
The Senate passed a bill last year to do that; similar legislation was introduced Thursday in the Senate.
Business groups backed House Bill 99. Terri Cole, president of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, called it “a very sensible and compassionate and clear solution to the issue.”
Department of Public Safety Secretary Greg Fouratt said the issuance of driver’s licenses to immigrants regardless of immigration status, authorized under a 2003 law, has had an unintended consequence: turning licenses into commodities for criminal organizations.
House Bill 99 would eliminate that temptation for criminal groups, he said.
Opponents of House Bill 99 said the cards – which would be a different design and color – would automatically mark immigrants as undocumented and subject them to discrimination or harassment.
Maria Cristina Lopez of Somos Un Pueblo Unido said it was “a slap in the face of hardworking New Mexico immigrant families.”
Taking away licenses would make it harder for immigrants to get jobs, opponents said. Driving privilege cards would be more complicated because they would require annual renewals, and the cards would have limited usefulness, they argued.
And legal residents of the state would not have a choice of whether to get Real ID-compliant licenses, under House Bill 99, opponents objected.
Pacheco said he was aware of that objection and indicated he is open to considering changing it.
“We have problems with this bill because we think it turns the MVD into an immigration department. It’s not practical,” said Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops.