Hundreds of immigrants rights activists rallied at the Capitol Monday to protest Gov. Susana Martínez’s immigration policies.
Carrying signs that said "New Mexico is Not Arizona," "Susana, Don't Play Politics With Public Safety" and "Licensed Drivers are Safer Drivers," protesters said her moves threaten to reverse gains in the relationship between immigrants and law enforcement officials in the last several years.
The group that organized the protest, Somos Un Pueblo Unido, and other critics of the governor’s policies, have assailed Martínez’s recent executive order requiring state law enforcement to check the immigration status of criminal suspects. They also have denounced her support for proposed measures that would revoke the driver’s licenses of undocumented immigrants.
“We’re having the march to protest anti-immigrant proposals in the legislature, namely revoking driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants,” said Marcela Díaz, the executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, one of New Mexico’s most high-profile immigrants rights groups. “And of course we want to draw attention to the executive order. We [Latinos] are more vulnerable to being profiled because of the color of our skin and our language.”
The governor's press office declined comment. In a previous statement, though, Martínez defended the order.
“This order takes the handcuffs off of New Mexico’s law enforcement officers in their mission to keep our communities safe," she said. "The criminal justice system should have the authority to determine the immigration status of all criminals, regardless of race or ethnicity, and report illegal immigrants who commit crimes to federal authorities.”
Martinez, who made national headlines in November when she was elected the nation's first Latina governor, struck a similar tone in her State of the State address in January.
“If we’re going to tell New Mexicans we’re serious about securing the borders, we must stop giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants,” Martínez said.
But now immigrant groups are pushing back.
Among the groups taking the battle to Martínez is Somo Un Pueblo Unido. It was founded in 1995 by a group of women in Sante Fe who were concerned about Proposition 187, a California measure that sought to ban undocumented immigrants from public schools and social services, among other things.
The group, whose members include Latinos, immigrants and their supporters, was a key force behind a 2003 law in the state granting driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants.
Now, Díaz said the relationship between immigrants and law enforcement is at risk. Prior to Martínez's policies, the marriage had improved, with several areas in the state establishing immigration task forces, Díaz added.
“For the last 10 years, we’ve made great [strides] integrating the immigrant community,” she said.
Still, State Rep. Andy Nuñez has introduced a bill that would require applicants for driver's licenses to present a Social Security card. Nuñez, who represents Doña Ana county, which borders Mexico, said the bill is designed to cut off so-called coyotes, among other law breakers.
He said the coyotes sell the licenses when they go to other states or return to Mexico.
"The ones we're trying to prevent from getting licenses are the ones who are trying to beat the system," Nuñez said. "The coyotes are bringing in people from all over, getting licenses, and taking it back to wherever they came from."
An Independent, Nuñez defended Martínez's immigration policies.
"She is seeing the needs of the state and addressing them," he said. "I can see why she's reacting the way she is."
Diaz said those who support more lenient immigration policies were braced for Martinez’s hard line on unauthorized immigrants.
“She ran an anti-immigrant campaign,” Diaz said. “Before the election and post-election, she was very critical of our driver license law.”
“Our main message is immigrants are part of New Mexico," she said, "we’ve contributed to New Mexico, we’re part of the solution, not part of the problem, when it comes to public safety.”