SANTA FE, N.M. – Republican Gov. Susana Martinez suffered a temporary political setback Thursday in a bid to stop New Mexico from granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
A legislative committee shelved her proposal and approved a Democrat-backed alternative that continues to allow licenses for illegal immigrants but with new restrictions.
The politically-charged fight is far from over, however. The legislation heads to another panel for consideration and Martinez stands a strong chance of success if the issue reaches the full 70-member House for a vote. A measure to overturn New Mexico's license policy for immigrants passed the House last year with the support of eight Democrats and one independent.
"I've got all the votes I need in the House," said Rep. Andy Nunez, a Hatch independent sponsoring the governor's proposal.
Nunez conceded it's very uncertain whether the measure can clear the Democrat-controlled Senate, which solidly rejected it last year.
The House Labor and Human Resources Committee voted 5-4 on a party-line split for what Democrats described as a compromise proposal. Republicans opposed it.
The measure allows illegal immigrants to continue getting licenses but for only two years before needing renewal. Currently, licenses can last four or eight years. The measure increases penalties for license fraud and will cancel licenses previously issued to foreign nationals if they renew them within two years — allowing the state to determine whether people remain New Mexico residents.
House Majority Leader Ken Martinez, a Grants Democrat, said the state's license policy allows illegal immigrants to "come up from the shadows" so they can drive to work and take their children to school and other places without fear of arrest for not having a license. The committee-approved restrictions will "really hit the bad guys hard," he said.
State law enforcement and Martinez administration officials told the committee that New Mexico's licensing law posed a security risk to the state and rest of the country.
"This has never been an immigration issue. It's not about immigration. It's simply about public safety and security," said Keith Gardner, the governor's chief of staff.
But church leaders and immigrant rights advocates disagreed, saying a driver's license is critical for immigrants living and working in New Mexico, many with U.S.-born children. The push to repeal New Mexico's law is stirring an anti-immigrant sentiment, they said.
"I think it is about immigration ... it is about divisiveness," said Santa Fe Mayor David Coss. "We should stop calling people in our community illegal aliens."
The governor's proposal would prohibit the state from granting licenses to illegal immigrants. However, it would continue to allow licenses for foreign nationals in the country legally, such as students with a visa.
New Mexico and Washington are the only states that allow illegal immigrants to obtain the same driver's license as a U.S. citizen. Utah grants immigrants a driving permit that can't be used for identification, unlike a driver's license that helps people open bank accounts and make financial transactions or board a commercial airliner.
Martinez contends that New Mexico's license system is subject to widespread fraud. The state has brought charges against several fraud rings, in which brokers were paid to supplement fraudulent documents for foreign nationals from Poland, China, Mexico and other countries.
During the committee hearing, several legislators noted that a review of license data by The Associated Press found that dozens of addresses — including some for businesses such as a smoke shop — have been used over and over again by immigrants to get a driver's license. The pattern suggests people are abusing the state's licensing system.
However, supporters of the current policy said the state doesn't need to repeal its law to deal with potential fraud.
"It is important the state is enforcing the law. When the law is enforced, the law works," said Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The AP identified 170 addresses in New Mexico at which 10 or more licenses have been issued to different foreign nationals from 2003 through August 2011. Those account for 2,662 licenses — representing nearly 3 percent of the total issued to foreign nationals during that period. The AP limited its analysis to addresses with a high number of licenses to try to get an indication of the extent of possible fraud. Large families or frequent tenant turnover at rental property are among the legitimate reasons why there are addresses with fewer than 10 licenses over a period of time.
New Mexico changed its law in 2003 to grant driver's licenses to anyone without a Social Security number, which are unavailable to people living illegally in the country. More than 90,000 licenses have been issued to immigrants, and state officials speculate that most of those have gone to illegal immigrants. However, it's impossible to know for certain because license applicants aren't asked about their immigration status.
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