SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has urged comprehensive immigration reform and asked candidates to tone down their rhetoric amid strong anti-immigration sentiment from some fellow Republicans, but she still faces accusations of pushing an “anti-immigrant” agenda.
The nation’s only Latina governor also has denounced GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump for his remarks on Mexican immigrants, visited a federal detention center holding Central American immigrant mothers and children, and taken official trips to Chihuahua, Mexico, to promote trade.
But advocates are criticizing Martinez’s effort to revise the state’s immigrant driver’s license law, which the former prosecutor has tried to do since taking office in 2011.
It comes as Democrats and Republicans are sparring over how to make New Mexico comply with the federal REAL ID Act. The tougher federal standards require proof of legal U.S. residency for those who want to use state identification to access certain areas of federal facilities.
But New Mexico has no such requirement and allows immigrants to get driver’s licenses regardless of legal status. Divided lawmakers are trying to create a plan to allow immigrants in the country illegally to apply for an official state document granting them driving privileges.
Martinez stepped up her call to change the state’s law after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced last year that New Mexico wouldn’t get an extension from the tougher requirements. Military installations recently said they would no longer accept state IDs for entry, and licenses in their current form would not be accepted to board commercial flights starting in 2018, federal officials say.
A few hundred advocates descended on the state Capitol on Monday to denounce Martinez for supporting a GOP proposal to get the state in line with federal standards. The measure would stop granting driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally but would allow them to obtain state “driver’s permit cards.”
Marcela Diaz, executive director of Santa Fe-based immigrant advocacy group Somos Un Pueblo Unido, called the GOP plan “discriminatory” and said it was a reflection of Martinez “fostering an anti-immigrant agenda” in immigrant-friendly New Mexico.
For her part, Martinez said the driver’s license issue is not about immigration but about security and federal requirements.
“Extreme special interests can call the governor names all they want, but she is going to continue standing with the overwhelming majority of New Mexicans — including Hispanics — who want to end the dangerous law that gives driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants,” Martinez spokesman Chris Sanchez said.
Jeronimo Cortina, a University of Houston political science professor, said Martinez, unlike other Republicans, has been strategic on the issue of immigration. She pushes law enforcement but portrays compassion to avoid turning off moderate voters in the state with the highest percentage of Latino residents, he said.
“Immigrant advocates need to be more sophisticated and learn to work with both sides in the future,” Cortina said. “The country is changing, and so are some political leaders.”