New Mexico Gov. Susana Martínez is directing police to check the immigration status of people arrested for crimes.
The Republican, who made headlines after the November elections when she became the nation’s first Latina governor, said she was eliminating an executive order by former Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, that prohibited law enforcement officials from asking people about immigration status.
"This order takes the handcuffs off of New Mexico's law enforcement officers in their mission to keep our communities safe," Martínez said in a statement. "The criminal justice system should have the authority to determine the immigration status of all criminals, regardless of race or ethnicity, and report illegal immigrants who commit crimes to federal authorities."
However, Martínez said law enforcement working for state agencies will continue to be barred from asking about the immigration status of someone who is a crime victim, a witness to a crime or seeking police assistance. Richardson had ordered that in 2005.
Martínez’s order coincided with a bill introduced Monday that says that undocumented immigrants no longer could obtain New Mexico driver's licenses that serve as government identification, but they could still drive legally under a compromise bill introduced today.
Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, proposed revoking the licenses of foreign nationals, then requiring them to obtain a one-year permit that would be good for driving only.
Rehm, a retired sheriff's deputy, said he wanted a stricter measure that would deny undocumented immigrants any driving permit or license.
"That wouldn't make it through this Legislature," he said in an interview.
Martinez, a career prosecutor before being elected in November, has called on the Legislature to repeal the 2003 law in which people can obtain New Mexico licenses without providing proof of immigration status. Rehm's proposal HB 261, does not go as far as she wanted.
As for the governor’s executive order regarding police checking immigration documents, Scott Darnell, a spokesman for Martínez, said state police will not ask about immigration status of motorists stopped for traffic violations such as speeding. The administration's policy applies only when someone is arrested for a crime, he said.
Martínez's policy drew criticism from a civil rights group.
"This executive order invites racial profiling by giving an incentive to police to arrest people who look and sound 'foreign.' New Mexicans should not have to fear that a broken taillight or other pretextual stop will lead to their arrest because of the color of their skin," said Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New Mexico.
Before her election as governor, Martinez was district attorney in Dona Ana County in southern New Mexico.
During last year's gubernatorial campaign, Martínez criticized Richardson for having a "sanctuary" policy on illegal immigration.
New Mexico legislators who pushed for allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses said this would increase the number of drivers with auto insurance. Rehm said his plan for permits would still enable undocumented immigrants to buy insurance.
Eleven states once had laws allowing undocumented immigrants to receive driver's licenses. All but three have repealed those laws.
Utah issues permits for driving only. New Mexico and Washington state issue driver's licenses that also can be used as government identification, the type needed to board an airplane or enter a federal courthouse.
This is based on a story by The Associated Press.