SANTA FE, N.M. — Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and her allies face a tough first test in the Legislature over their proposal to stop New Mexico from granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
The House Labor and Human Resources Committee is to consider the governor's proposal Thursday and it's expected to encounter strong opposition at the first hearing on the issue during this year's legislative session.
The panel's five Democrats, who account for a majority of the votes, opposed a similar bill last year that passed the House but failed later in the Senate.
The legislation will prohibit the state from granting licenses to illegal immigrants. However, it continues to allow licenses for foreign nationals in the country legally, such as students with visa.
New Mexico and Washington are the only states that allow illegal immigrants to obtain the same driver's license as a U.S. citizen. Utah grants immigrants a driving permit that can't be used for identification, unlike a driver's license that helps people open bank accounts and make financial transactions or board a commercial airliner.
Martinez contends that New Mexico's license system is subject to widespread fraud. The state has brought charges against several fraud rings, in which brokers were paid to supplement fraudulent documents for foreign nationals from Poland, China, Mexico and other countries.
A review of license data by The Associated Press found that dozens of addresses — including some for businesses such as a smoke shop — have been used over and over again by immigrants to get a driver's license. The pattern suggests people are abusing the state's licensing system.
"The governor stands with New Mexicans in saying that this is a dangerous law that threatens public safety in New Mexico, and just as more than a dozen other states have done, it needs to be repealed," Scott Darnell, a spokesman for the governor, said before the hearing.
"Only two states in the country offer a driver's license to illegal immigrants, and this has generated an industry of fraud, trafficking, and organized crime in New Mexico, as people from all throughout the world have come to our state for the purpose of fraudulently obtaining our government-issued ID and leaving the state — to places, and for purposes, that are unknown."
Supporters of the current policy contend the state doesn't need to repeal its law to deal with potential fraud and they say a driver's license is vital to the immigrant community living and working in New Mexico, some of whom have been here for years and have U.S.-born children.
"It's disingenuous to suggest that fraud will go away if New Mexico repeals the current driver's license law. Fraud exists in many of the states that don't provide driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants," Marcela Diaz, executive director of an immigrant rights group, Somos un Pueblo Unido, said in a recent interview.
Diaz contends fraud is limited to a small portion of immigrant licenses. Democrats in the Senate took a similar position after the AP's report on Wednesday.
"This issue has drawn national attention and it has made one thing very clear: The current law must be strengthened to include provisions that clearly address the flaws. Repealing the law and forcing a fraction of the driving population to go without proper licensing, registration or insurance puts New Mexican families at risk," the Senate Democratic caucus said in a written statement.
The AP identified 170 addresses in New Mexico at which 10 or more licenses have been issued to different foreign nationals from 2003 through August 2011. Those account for 2,662 licenses — representing nearly 3 percent of the total issued to foreign nationals during that period. The AP limited its analysis to addresses with a high number of licenses to try to get an indication of the extent of possible fraud. Large families or frequent tenant turnover at rental property are among the legitimate reasons why there are addresses with fewer than 10 licenses over a period of time.
Democrats who oppose the governor's proposal are pushing alternatives. The Senate approved a Democratic-backed measure last year that would have increased penalties on license fraud, required fingerprinting of immigrants seeking a license and canceled current licenses of foreign nationals that weren't renewed within two years — allowing the state to verify whether a foreign national remained a New Mexico resident.
New Mexico changed its law in 2003 to grant driver's licenses to anyone without a Social Security number, which are unavailable to people living illegally in the country. More than 90,000 licenses have been issued to immigrants, and state officials speculate that most of those have gone to illegal immigrants. However, it's impossible to know for certain because license applicants aren't asked about their immigration status.
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