New Mexico's policy of giving illegal immigrants driver's licenses could soon come back to bite the state's law-abiding residents when stringent new federal requirements for IDs take effect in January, the governor is warning.
With a key provision of the federal Real ID Act set to kick in on Jan. 15, Gov. Susana Martinez claims there will be no way to differentiate between state IDs issued to residents who furnish federally-required documentation and those issued to illegal immigrants based on less stringent requirements. Martinez is predicting the federal government will have no choice come Jan. 15, 2013, but to no longer recognize her state's licenses as valid identification at airport ticket counters or for entry into federal buildings or complexes such as the state's large Kirtland and Holloman Air Force.
“It’s deeply concerning that New Mexicans who work at our labs, get on an airplane, or need to show identification at any other federal facility will no longer be able to use their driver’s license to do so,” Martinez said after sending an Oct. 10 letter of inquiry about the act to Department of Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano. “This is not just an inconvenience; it is an incredible burden on our citizens and our businesses, and on our ability to be competitive with our neighboring states.”
The Real ID Act was passed in 2005, to ensure authenticity of documents used to acquire a state-issued driver's license or identification card, but much of its thrust has been delayed. More than 15 states have actually passed legislation to refuse compliance with the act.
New Mexico and Washington are the only states which currently issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, and in New Mexico, a utility bill and any form of identification -- such as the Matricula Consular card, which is issued to Mexican nationals by their consulates -- is still all that is currently required. Under the Real ID Act, the federal government requires proof of citizenship for a driver's license and may not recognize other state IDs unless they are supported by such documents as a birth certificate, Social Security number or passport. States that did comply with the criteria for the Real ID Act have extended deadlines, but New Mexico did not file the required information for an extension. A DHS spokesperson said the act will be enforced.
"DHS has every intention of maintaining the January 15, 2013, deadline," said Marsha Catron, DHS spokesperson. "This applies to the state meeting requirements, not an individual."
According to the DHS, if a state completes a checklist which brings them into compliance with the Real ID Act, they will grant an extension for driver’s licenses until Dec.1, 2014, for those born after Dec.1, 1964, and Dec.1, 2017, for those born before Dec. 1, 1964.
Greg Blair, spokesman for Martinez, says if the Jan. 15 deadline comes without any sort of extension, the most obvious implications on New Mexicans are how they are able to use their driver’s licenses.
“TSA security screeners will no longer accept a New Mexico driver’s license as valid ID to board a plane. Individuals who have to present ID to enter a federal building – such as Los Alamos National Lab or Sandia National Lab, which employ thousands of New Mexicans – will no longer be able to use their New Mexico driver’s license,” Blair said. “The implications are far-reaching, costly and certainly inconvenient.”
In 2003, then-Gov. Bill Richardson, pushed through the law approving the issuance of driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants in an attempt to decrease the number of uninsured drivers in the state. After nearly 10 years, there is little evidence the measure achieved the goal, say critics.
While New Mexican officials staunchly defend the validity and reliability of the documents used to obtain the card, Martinez said it opens a door for the possibility of fraud. An estimated 49,000 undocumented immigrants live in New Mexico, and since the law went into effect, some 80,000 licenses have been issued to foreign nationals, many of whom are not from the state.
In June, 30 people were indicted in an alleged illegal driver's license ring where illegal immigrants from South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee came to New Mexico to get driver's licenses using fraudulent utility bills.
New Mexico state Sen. Tim Jennings (D), a staunch supporter of Richardson’s law, says he will to take a wait-and-see approach to find out if the DHS will actually enforce the act.
“They’ve postponed the Real ID Act in the past,” Jennings said. “A lot of this comes about because the federal government fails to come up with coherent immigration reform then pushes it back on the states to decide what to do.”
He stands behind the premise of the law, which encouraged an increase in insured drivers in the state.
Jennings says he will not discount repealing the state’s law, but with the caveat Gov. Martinez and the federal government put into place a more reasonable policy.
Ironically, the next New Mexico legislative session begins at noon on Jan. 15.
“Gov. Martinez will work with legislators to repeal the dangerous and misguided law that gives driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants,” Blair said.
Joseph J. Kolb is a freelance journalist in New Mexico