SANTA FE, N.M. – Four state legislators and a Silver City woman asked a judge Wednesday to stop Gov. Susana Martinez's administration from trying to verify whether immigrants who received a driver's license are still New Mexico residents.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and an Albuquerque law firm brought the lawsuit on behalf of the Democratic lawmakers and the Hispanic woman.
The lawsuit in state District Court in Santa Fe seeks to block the Taxation and Revenue Department and its Motor Vehicle Division from checking a random sample of 10,000 license holders who are foreign nationals to determine their residency.
Three states — New Mexico, Washington and Utah — allow illegal immigrants to get licenses because their laws do not require proof of citizenship. However, Utah issues driving permits that cannot be used as a government identification card.
New Mexico has sent notices to people that they must schedule an in-person appointment and bring documents, such as a utility bill or lease agreement, to prove they are residents of the state. The administration plans to cancel licenses of individuals who are no longer New Mexico residents.
The suit contends the governor's license certification program is illegal because it singles out foreign nationals for unfair treatment, violating equal protection provisions of the state and federal constitutions. The lawsuit said the administration also lacks the power to order the checks because the program wasn't authorized by the Legislature and it effectively requires some people to reapply for a driver's license.
"The program is unconstitutional because it unfairly targets certain Latinos in New Mexico and places a higher burden on them beyond what the law requires of other residents," said Martha Gomez, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The governor wants the Legislature to end the state's policy of granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Martinez contends the license law jeopardizes public safety, and immigrants are fraudulently getting licenses by claiming to be New Mexico residents.
"This is a lawsuit by an out-of-state group that is trying to stop the state's effort to confront identity theft and fraud that exists due to the issuance of driver's licenses to illegal immigrants," Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell said in a statement.
"This out-of-state group may believe that New Mexicans do not have a right to know who is residing within their borders, and as such, they may not have a problem trying to protect the illegal immigrants who have come to New Mexico from throughout the country to get our driver's license and leave," Darnell said. "But New Mexicans have a decidedly different point of view, and so does Gov. Martinez."
The governor announced the residency verification plan in July. It was the latest effort by the administration to focus attention on the politically charged immigrant license policy.
Martinez, who took office in January, vowed during her gubernatorial campaign to end the state's licensing policy enacted during former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson's administration.
The governor's license repeal proposal failed earlier this year in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Opponents said the move to end immigrant licenses was politically motivated and targeted Mexican immigrants. Martinez plans to ask the Legislature to revisit the issue during a special session that starts next month.
Under a 2003 law, more than 80,000 driver's licenses have gone to foreign nationals. The state says it doesn't know how many of those went to illegal immigrants because it doesn't ask the immigration status of license applicants.
Democratic Rep. Miguel Garcia of Albuquerque helped bring the lawsuit and was a main sponsor of the 2003 license legislation. He said the law provides an opportunity for "our immigrant population to come out of the shadows and become a participatory member of our society."
Garcia and other supporters say the licensing law has improved public safety by having immigrants get insurance for their vehicles and has lessened immigrant fears of reporting crimes and cooperating with police.
Also bringing the lawsuit are Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan; Sens. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, and Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque; and Silver City resident Marisela Morales, a legal permanent U.S. resident who has lived in the country for 16 years.
Immigrant applicants for a New Mexico driver's license don't need a Social Security number as part of their identification. Instead, they can submit a taxpayer identification number issued by the federal government along with other identification, such as a passport and an ID card issued by the Mexican Consulate, known as a matricula consular.
Slightly more than 1,000 foreign national license holders have had their licenses recertified so far, according to the governor's office. About 2,500 appointments have been scheduled. Of the 10,000 letters sent out, about 31 percent have been returned as undeliverable for some reason, including that there is no forwarding address for an individual.
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