New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, a Republican selected by national party leaders to court Hispanics, is on the verge of losing a high-profile fight to stop illegal immigrants from getting driver’s licenses in her state.
Her fourth attempt to repeal a 2003 law granting the licenses died in the Legislature and efforts to revive it have failed, with just two days left before the end of the session. Only two other states, Washington and Utah, allow similar privileges. Illinois will begin issuing temporary licenses later this year as similar proposals advance in other states.
“I don’t give up,” Martinez, 53, said in an interview at the state capitol, the Roundhouse, where Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature have thwarted her attempts to deliver on a major campaign promise. “What I’ll keep doing is making sure the public is well aware and informed of who is blocking this,” she said.
The driver’s license fight has been an issue in New Mexico politics since Martinez ran in 2010. At the same time, the nation’s first Latina governor has emerged as a key voice for Republicans nationally calling for a more inclusive tone on immigration and better recruitment of minority candidates.
In January, Martinez was named honorary co-chairman along with Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval of the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Future Majority Caucus to recruit minority candidates.
In New Mexico, the the debate over driver’s licenses has become a wedge issue, said Gabriel Sanchez, associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. While Martinez came out against Arizona’s 2010 law cracking down on illegal residents, one of her first acts as governor in 2011 was an executive order directing state police to inquire about the immigration status of those they arrest.
“A lot of people characterize what she says on the national scene as being contradictory,” said Sanchez, who is also director of research for the polling firm Latino Decisions. For Republicans, “it reflects the struggle they have to send a more welcoming message to Latino voters but not really doing that with public policy,” he said.
Martinez, a former district attorney, said the license issue is about public safety, not immigration.
New Mexico has become a destination for criminals and undocumented immigrants in other states seeking fraudulent identification, she said. Her office has cataloged more than a dozen cases of fraud rings in recent years providing false residency documents for immigrants.
Martinez warns that drug cartel and gang members could obtain driver’s licenses in her state and then move more freely throughout the U.S. What New Mexico does affects other states, including several that changed laws to deny licenses to undocumented residents after the Sept. 11 attacks, she said.
“They are given a driver’s license from New Mexico, and they can then trade that New Mexico driver’s license for a driver’s license from any other state that never intended to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants,” she said. “We don’t want people to be attracted to New Mexico in order to commit criminal acts here.”
More than 100,000 driver’s licenses have been issued in New Mexico to immigrants since the law passed in 2003, according to the state Taxation and Revenue Department.
Martinez blames “fringe” Democrats for blocking compromise on the issue during the three regular sessions and one special session since she took office. A measure this year would have allowed temporary licenses for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, who qualify for a federal deferred-action program announced in June by President Barack Obama that blocks deportation. Those young immigrants would qualify for regular licenses even without the 2003 law, opponents of the repeal said.
Most states allow deferred-action recipients to get licenses, according to the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center. Nebraska and Arizona don’t. North Carolina has said it will issue specially marked licenses for young immigrants in the program.
Martinez has rejected changes to her state’s license program that would clamp down on fraud while still allowing undocumented residents to drive, said Marcela Diaz, executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, an immigrants’ rights group in Santa Fe that advocated for the 2003 law.
“She is at the national level portraying herself as the person who can reach out to Latinos and work on policy to integrate Latinos,” Diaz said. “We have not seen that play out in our state. What we’ve seen is extremism and relentlessness.”
Licensing immigrants makes roadways safer by allowing more drivers to be tested and insured, and it helps immigrants who will live in the state anyway emerge from the shadows, she said.
In Illinois, Governor Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, both Democrats, and other supporters lauded a new state law on immigrant driver’s licenses, signed in January, as a step toward improving traffic safety.
“Despite the stalemate on immigration reform in Washington D.C., Illinois is moving forward,” Quinn said in a statement. “This common-sense law will help everybody, regardless of their background, learn the rules of the road, pass a driving test and get insurance. As a result, our roads will be safer, we will create more access to job opportunities and our economic growth will be strengthened.”
For Javier Dominguez, 42, who came to the U.S. from the Mexican state of Chihuahua 22 years ago, his New Mexico driver’s license allows him to keep a good job and provide for his three children, two of whom are U.S. citizens. He commutes from his home in Farmington to work as a foreman in Colorado oil fields, logging more than 20,000 miles on the road in the last six months, he said.
“It’s part of our life, it is a necessity,” Dominguez said. He said it also makes undocumented residents accountable on the roads and to law enforcement. “Now we exist. Without a driver’s license, it is like we don’t exist.”
The state shouldn’t reward those who break the law with driving privileges, said state Senator Lee Cotter, a freshman Republican from Las Cruces who supports Martinez’s effort to repeal the law.
“We are giving the wrong incentives,” Cotter said.
Martinez cites polls that show most New Mexicans, including Latinos, want the license law repealed. Sanchez, of Latino Decisions, said other polls show most voters and most Latinos prefer a system to crack down on fraud that still allows undocumented residents to drive legally.
Martinez said she doesn’t think her crusade in New Mexico, where polls show she remains popular, will taint her efforts to ingratiate Republicans with Latino voters nationwide. Hers is a party that welcomes immigrants and their contributions, she said.
The governor said she’ll work to recruit minority candidates because it’s important for Republicans to look like the populations they represent.
“The tone has to change,” Martinez said. “It has to be inclusive of them. And the tone has to change to make sure they are part of the solution. And we cannot continue to be divisive.”
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