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Push to repeal New Mexico's law allowing immigrants to drive gains momentum

Thousands of immigrant advocates rally at the State Capitol to protest a proposal aimed at repealing a New Mexico law that allows immigrants in the country illegally to obtain driver's licenses Monday, Feb. 2, 2015, in Santa Fe, N.M. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)

Thousands of immigrant advocates rally at the State Capitol to protest a proposal aimed at repealing a New Mexico law that allows immigrants in the country illegally to obtain driver's licenses Monday, Feb. 2, 2015, in Santa Fe, N.M. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)

Alejandro Altamirano has called New Mexico home for a dozen years. It's where his two US-born daughters are being raised.

But the 36-year-old dairy farm worker from Durango, Mexico, fears he'll be forced into the shadows if he loses his driver's license.

New Mexico, for years, was out in front on handing out driver's licenses to people suspected of being in the country illegally. Now, legislation to stop the state's practice is gaining traction despite a trend sweeping through several states to offer driving privileges to everyone regardless of their status.

Fresh off a political power shift, the GOP-led House of Representatives is poised to pass a measure repealing a 2003 law that made New Mexico one of the first states to offer licenses to immigrants regardless of status. However, the momentum in the lower chamber may not matter since Senate Democrats have vowed to fight the legislation.

New Mexico has the nation's highest percentage of Latinos and the only Latina governor, but the legislation has still sparked a fight.

Proponents of the bill say polling shows most New Mexicans want to reverse course and repeal the law. They argue doing so would help prevent fraud and bring the state into compliance with federal identification requirements.

California this year began issuing driver's licenses to immigrants who are in the country illegally, bringing the number of states that do so to 10. California expects 1.4 million people to apply for the licenses in the next three years.

"It's a product of many years and the need for driver's licenses," said Tanya Broder, senior staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles. "From a policy perspective, it made sense that all the drivers were tested and licensed and insured and accountable for their driving records."

Those who want to keep New Mexico's law the way it is argue working families stand to get hurt otherwise. They also say other states that have joined New Mexico in doling out licenses are not running afoul of federal ID laws.

The opposition argues New Mexico has become a haven for those seeking to fraudulently obtain driver's licenses.

"These fraud operations involve the trafficking of humans to our state for the purpose of committing crimes; and with no intention to live here, they snatch up our license to take elsewhere, to places unknown and for purposes unknown," said Mike Lonergan, spokesman for Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

Martinez, the nation's only Latina governor and a rising figure in the Republican Party, has been pushing to repeal the driver's license law since she was first elected in 2010.

"I am going to fight at every opportunity to make sure this law is repealed," she has said.

The governor and others have said the original law has failed to drive down the rate of uninsured motorists as intended.

"We tried the experiment and it didn't work," said Rep. William "Bill" Rehm, R-Albuquerque, who offered his own version of the repeal legislation. He contends the other states that are handing out driver's licenses will also be out of compliance with federal law.

Democrats have thus far blocked repeal and question the Martinez administration's efforts.

"They campaigned on the repeal and they're stuck fighting for repeal. They painted themselves in a political corner," said Rep. Antonio Maestas, D-Albuquerque.

Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, whose repeal legislation is moving through the House, said a vast majority of New Mexicans want this "dangerous law off the books."

Repeal supporters point to a 2014 Albuquerque Journal poll showing 75 percent in the state were against the 2003 law. Detractors point to other polls, saying a majority of Hispanic residents in New Mexico support giving licenses to people regardless of status.

No studies show these drivers are involved in fraud or terrorist activity, said Matt Barreto, co-founder of the Seattle-based Latino Decisions polling and research firm and a UCLA political science and Chicano studies professor.

"You've got Republicans in the (New Mexico) Legislature in their largest numbers in a very long time; it's a partisan issue plain and simple," Barreto said.

Meanwhile, Altamirano waits.

He hopes he can keep his driver's license because it could mean losing his job, his home and everything he has worked toward.

"I will live with more fear, and especially more fear of police when I drive," he said.

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