SANTE FE – A New Mexico judge blocked Republican Gov. Susana Martinez's administration Wednesday from requiring tens of thousands of immigrants to recertify their driver's licenses and verify whether they continue to live in the state.
Martinez last month announced the residency verification plan, which represents the administration's latest effort to focus attention on the state's politically charged license policy, which the governor contends poses a security risk.
New Mexico is one of three states -- the others are Washington and Utah -- where an illegal immigrant can get a driver's license because no proof of citizenship is required.
Under the residency verification plan, New Mexico 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 live in the state. The administration plans to cancel licenses of people who no longer are New Mexico residents.
Martinez wants the Legislature to repeal New Mexico's license policy by requiring people to have a Social Security number, which is not available to someone living in the country illegally, to obtain a driver's license. The governor's proposal failed in the Legislature earlier this year but she's renewing her push when lawmakers return to work next week in a special session.
District Court Judge Sarah Singleton on Wednesday issued an order temporarily halting the license residency verification program while it's being challenged in court.
A lawsuit was filed last week by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund against the administration's plan to check a random sample of 10,000 license holders who are foreign nationals.
The lawsuit contends that the license certification program is illegal because it discriminates against one segment of the population -- foreign nationals. The suit also contends the governor doesn't have the power, without approval from the Legislature, to in effect require certain people to reapply for a driver's license.
David Urias, an Albuquerque lawyer helping to handle the case, said the judge's ruling was important "because it protects the rights of the people who are being ordered by the MVD to come before it and prove their identity and residency, even though the MVD has absolutely no reason to believe that any of these particular individuals did anything wrong."
Scott Darnell, a spokesman for the governor, said the judge's order was "fairly standard as the court examines the residency certification program."
"In the absence of the Legislature acting to put an end to the program that provides driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, the governor has the responsibility to identify and attempt to curb the dangerous fraud and identity theft that is inherent in it," Darnell said in a statement.
Wednesday was the last day of regularly scheduled appointments for residency certification. Any future appointments, according to the administration, would have been for people who had not yet complied or when the state lacked a forwarding address after the initial notice couldn't be delivered.
Of the 10,000 letters sent out, more than 30 percent have been returned as undeliverable for some reason.
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of several Democratic lawmakers and a Hispanic woman -- a foreign national from Mexico who has been living legally in the state for more than a decade.
Marcela Diaz of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, an immigrant rights group, said in a statement that the license verification program "is nothing more than a bullying tactic that intimidates and threatens people for no reason."