SANTA FE, N.M. — Chanting "Jesus was an immigrant," advocates greeted state lawmakers Tuesday as they returned for a special session that could consider a proposed repeal of a law that lets those illegally in the country get New Mexico driver's licenses.
About 60 protesters and advocates, bused in from southern New Mexico by the group Border Network for Human Rights, lobbied lawmakers and presented a petition signed by 5,000 residents to Gov. Susana Martinez.
Outside the Capitol, about 150 tea party members held a counter-protest in support of the Republican governor's plan to repeal the driver's license law.
Martinez added the issue, along with a number of others, to the call for the special legislative session on redistricting. She wants to repeal the law over fears that it jeopardizes public safety and attracts illegal immigrants who fraudulently claim to live in the state only to get ID cards that make it easier to stay in the country.
Advocates, however, said the law allows more drivers to be insured in the state and helps law enforcement obtain needed safety data. They said the fraud cases Martinez often cites for reasons to change the law are isolated.
They also said less than 5 percent of New Mexico drivers are in the country illegally.
Alberto Lino, 32, of Las Cruces, N.M., said he came to Santa Fe to talk to lawmakers on the benefits of the current law. Disabled and bound to a wheelchair, Lino said he can't drive.
"But my wife, who is undocumented, can," said Lino. "Without this law, we can't get around and we won't have insurance. This helps us and the rest of the state."
Adriana Cadena, alliance director of the Border Network for Human Rights, said the attempt to repeal the law was part of a larger campaign to target immigrants.
"It goes against the diversity of the state," she said.
Outside the Capitol building, Linda Sedillos, 59, of Albuquerque, N.M., took part in the tea party rally and held a sign that expressed support for Gov. Martinez.
"Illegal is illegal," said Sedillos. "It's not a race issue. I'm Hispanic. I just think (the law) makes us unsafe."
A repeal of driver's license law failed in the state Senate during the 60-day legislative session earlier this year.
State Rep. Andy Nunez, I-Hatch, a sponsor of the repeal, said he believed the law has a better chance of passing this time due to all of the press coverage around the issue.
Nunez said he, as a Mexican-American, took offense to critics who charged that the repeal effort was based on race.
"This is not just about Mexicans," said Nunez. "It's Russians. It's about Poles. It's about people coming here illegally."Comment on this story
Nunez said that since the law's passage in 2003, he had seen a number of immigrants trying to use all sorts of fake documents to obtain driver's licenses.
New Mexico is one of three states — including Washington and Utah — where illegal immigrants can get a driver's license because no proof of citizenship is required. Utah's permits cannot be used as government ID cards.
Another immigrant rally was planned Thursday in Santa Fe by another immigrant advocacy group, the Santa Fe-based Somos Un Pueblo Unido.