SANTA FE, N.M. — Democratic legislators on Thursday vowed to fight a directive by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez requiring state law enforcement to ask about the immigration status of criminal suspects.
More than a dozen House and Senate members opposed the governor's executive order, saying it would lead to racial profiling of Hispanics. They likened the policy to a controversial immigration enforcement law in Arizona and said it was contrary to New Mexico's tradition of cultural diversity.
"I just cannot believe that in a state like New Mexico and a governor with a last name like Martinez we are faced with a question like this. To me it's just unbelievable," Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, said at a news conference in the Capitol.
Hispanics account for 46 percent of New Mexico's population, the largest percentage of any state.
Martinez issued the executive order this week, overturning a policy by former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson that prohibited the state police from asking about immigration status solely to determine whether the individual was in violation of federal immigration laws.
Under the governor's directive, state agency law enforcement officers will be required to ask about the immigration status of people arrested for a crime and report the information to federal immigration authorities. The state police, which is part of the Department of Public Safety, is the main law enforcement agency in state government.
Administration officials say motorists will not be subject to an immigration check during a traffic stop.
The executive order prohibits police from asking about the immigration status of someone who is a crime victim, a witness to a crime or seeking police assistance. That's unchanged from Richardson order in 2005.
"I know we are in America but are we in New Mexico or Arizona?" said Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, D-Dona Ana, who recalled that her father had once been questioned by federal immigration authorities while working on his farm in southern New Mexico.
Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, said the governor's order was the equivalent of a "no dogs or Mexicans" sign that he once saw at a restaurant as a teenager in eastern New Mexico.
"It's trying to restore what many of us have fought historically to undo," said Garcia.
A spokesman for the governor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Several legislators said the executive order lacked specifics on what crimes would be covered and instead required immigration checks of "criminal suspects."
"Guess what, everyone in this room is a criminal suspect if in fact a particular law enforcement official wants us to be," said Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat and former prosecutor.
The lawmakers support several bills to overturn all or part of the governor's policy, including a measure that would prohibit state and law enforcement agencies from enforcing federal immigration law. Another measure would require emergency personnel and police to provide assistance without checking on a person's immigration status.