POLITICS

New Mexico to Vote on Driver's Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez outlines her legislative priorities to New Mexico's 112 lawmakers on Tuesday, Jan.  18, 2011 in Santa Fe, N.M.  Martinez is reaching out to Democrats as the Legislature returns to work. Martinez used her State of the State speech Tuesday to call for a bipartisan approach to New Mexico's pressing problems, including a $400 million budget shortfall.  (AP Photo/The New Mexican,  Jane Phillips)

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez outlines her legislative priorities to New Mexico's 112 lawmakers on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011 in Santa Fe, N.M. Martinez is reaching out to Democrats as the Legislature returns to work. Martinez used her State of the State speech Tuesday to call for a bipartisan approach to New Mexico's pressing problems, including a $400 million budget shortfall. (AP Photo/The New Mexican, Jane Phillips)

The New Mexico House of Representatives is set to take up Friday whether to repeal a law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

Republican Gov. Susana Martínez and her allies succeeded Thursday in a parliamentary maneuver to force the 70-member Democratic-controlled House to debate and vote on an issue that the governor made a centerpiece of her campaign.

A 2003 law signed by former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson has allowed more than 80,000 driver's licenses to be issued to foreign nationals, including those living illegally in the country. State officials say they don't know how many licenses went to undocumented immigrants because people aren't asked for their immigration status when they apply for a license.

Martínez contends it's a security risk to give driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. Supporters of the policy say it has helped improve public safety, lessening fear among immigrants to report crimes to police and improving compliance with insurance requirements for motorists.

Legislation by Rep. Andy Nuñez, a Hatch independent, will prohibit the state from granting licenses to anyone without a Social Security number, which is unavailable to an undocumented immigrant.

He predicts a coalition of Democrats and Republicans will approve the bill on Friday.

"It's the will of the people," said Nuñez, a conservative who switched his party affiliation from Democrat to independent earlier this year. "The biggest part of the people want this."

The legislation has been bottled up in a committee since last month. But the House agreed --on two 36-34 votes Thursday-- to bypass committees assigned to consider the measure and instead bring it directly to the chamber for debate. Two Democrats -- Sandra Jeff, of Crownpoint, and Dona Irwin, of Deming -- broke party ranks to support the move by Nuñez and Republicans.

Democratic leaders said it's the first time in 50 years the House approved such a procedure for handling legislation. Debate on Thursday's parliamentary moves lasted nearly six hours and underscored the new political landscape confronting Democrats after the GOP picked up eight seats in last year's elections.

With one independent in the House, Democrats hold a narrow 36-33 majority and they no longer have the ability to steamroll Republicans.

Regardless of the outcome of Friday's vote, Republicans and Martínez will have ammunition for the 2012 elections, when the House and Senate are up for election.

If the House approves Nuñez's bill, it faces difficulty in the Senate. Two GOP-backed immigrant license proposals failed in the Senate last month and the Senate Public Affairs Committee shelved a measure on Thursday on a party-line 4-2 vote.

The New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops is lobbying against the pending House bill, with church leaders calling lawmakers.

"This bill lacks compromise and it lacks compassion for all those children who are brought to our state of no fault of their own, become part of our society and graduate from our high schools. They will not be able to get a driver's license. You need a compromise bill," said Allen Sánchez, conference executive director.

This is based on a story by The Associated Press.

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