Driver's licenses issued by New Mexico are about to become a lot less useful, and residents can blame the state's insistence on issuing the IDs to illegal immigrants. 

The federal Department of Homeland Security informed state officials last week that a two-year effort to reconcile tough federal ID requirements with the granting of licenses to illegal immigrants based on dubious documents failed. Beginning on Jan. 10, state driver’s licenses will no longer be accepted at federal facilities, and eventually, state IDs won’t be enough to get bearers on board commercial flights.

"Although DHS recognizes the State of New Mexico's efforts to enhance the security of its driver's licenses and identification cards, New Mexico has not provided adequate justification for continued noncompliance with the REAL ID standards that would warrant granting your request for another extension," read the DHS letter sent to the state Department of Taxation. "As a result, federal agencies may not accept New Mexico driver's licenses and identification cards for official purposes in accordance with the phased enforcement schedule announced on December 20, 2013."

"With this letter, the feds are saying that they are fed up that the Legislature continues to allow the dangerous practice of giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants."

- Demesia Padilla, New Mexico Department of Taxation and Revenue

In addition to New Mexico, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Utah and Vermont, Washington, and Washington, D.C., issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Washington and New Mexico are the only states that do not require proof of legal presence in the U.S. to get a state license or ID, while the others give restricted licenses to people who can't prove they are in the U.S. legally.

But New Mexico is in worse shape than Washington, which offers enhanced driver's licenses and IDs that require proof of U.S. citizenship. Those are valid under the federal law, but the standard IDs issued for years don't pass federal muster. Since 2007, more than 500,000 Washington residents have gotten an enhanced driver's license or enhanced ID card. There are about 5.4 million people with standard licenses, and about 600,000 with regular ID cards.

The REAL ID Act requires proof of legal U.S. residency for holders of government-issued identification cards who want to use them to access certain areas of federal buildings. New Mexico state law allows immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally to obtain driver’s licenses, a policy current Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has tried to get repealed. But with the policy entrenched, and officials unable to guarantee to the satisfaction of federal authorities that IDs are secure, no New Mexico-issued licenses will be recognized.

"With this letter, the feds are saying that they are fed up that the Legislature continues to allow the dangerous practice of giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants," said Demesia Padilla, secretary of the New Mexico Department of Taxation and Revenue. "An overwhelming majority of New Mexicans have been very clear on this issue, and the Legislature should start listening to them before it begins to affect the daily lives of New Mexicans."

The feds have granted New Mexico two years' worth of extensions to comply with the REAL ID Act, but has denied any further delay. The federal crackdown will extend to military bases and federal facilities such as courts, but the aspect likely to have the widest effect is air travel. Without a new solution in the coming months, New Mexico residents will likely be forced to show passports in order to board even domestic flights.

The REAL ID Act, was passed by Congress in 2005, enacted the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation that the Federal Government “set standards for the issuance of sources of identification, such as driver's licenses.”

At the core of DHS's decision is a 2003 policy implemented by then- Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants who were allowed to present the Matricular Consular card issued by Mexican consulates, as an official form of identification.

Richardson had hoped the policy would bring unlicensed drivers out of the shadows and at least have them go through the licensing process to bolster the number of insured drivers in the state.

In March, the state Senate approved a two-tiered bill that would have continued to allow licenses to be issued to illegal immigrants while taking steps to ensure security, but the measure died in the house.

Despite being the first Latina governor in U.S. history, Martinez, a former prosecutor, sees the policy as a catalyst for criminal fraud which occurred almost immediately after the policy went into place.

In 2014, Hai Gan, 57, a legal, permanent resident from China who resides in The Colony, Texas, was sentenced  in federal court  to 41 months in federal prison and will be deported after he completes his prison sentence for attempting to fraudulently obtain driver's licenses for 51 illegal immigrants.