There was a time when 18 U.S. states allowed residents to access driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status. Today, just three do. And in one of them, New Mexico, the state’s newly elected tea party-backed Latina governor is determined to make good on her campaign promise to not just eliminate access to driver’s licenses—she also wants to revoke licenses that have already been given to non-citizens.
After a heated legislative season during which the state legislature fought bitterly over several versions of HB 78, such that at various times the bill would have both revoked and protected equal access to driver’s licenses, Gov. Susana Martinez announced on Monday that she would take the issue up again in a special legislative session this fall.
“We cannot just ignore this problem any longer as more and more illegal immigrants continue to flood New Mexico to obtain a driver’s license,” Martinez said back in March, at the close of the legislative season.
Immigrant rights groups instead say that protecting immigrants’ access to driver’s licenses is an issue of public safety. In the years since 2003, when New Mexico’s driver’s license law went into effect, they say that 80,000 non-citizens have cleared the written, eye and road tests. According to Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a New Mexico immigrant rights group which has been fighting to defend driver’s licenses, more than one in five New Mexico drivers was uninsured back in 2003. Today, just 9 percent of driver’s are uninsured.
The group also argues that people who drive with valid driver’s licenses are more likely to pay fines and cooperate with police when they’re stopped for traffic violations, and are more likely to participate with police investigations.
Critics of the law, on the other hand, charge that it has made New Mexico a destination for undocumented immigrants, who are flooding the state and taking advantage. An Associated Press report published last year found that the state gave out thousands more driver’s licenses in the weeks following Arizona’s passage of SB 1070 than it had in the same time period just a year prior.
“People are not flying in from Poland direct to Albuquerque to get a driver’s license—it’s just a ridiculous notion,” countered Marcela Diaz, the executive director of Somos un Pueblo Unido. Diaz also argued the issues of fraud and the reports of vulnerable security checks are overblown. “For people who applied for driver’s licenses and didn’t have Social Security numbers, fewer than 5 percent of applications were fraudulent.”
Like the various state bills demanding voter ID, the idea that driver’s license systems are besieged by criminal rings of people trying to flood the state has been used to curb people’s rights. “People were driving before driver’s licenses,” Diaz said. “It’s really an issue of where New Mexico wants to go on this issue. Are we going to continue to be reasonable, respectful and integrate immigrants into our state or are we going to go the way of Arizona and start moving backwards.”
Washington State and Utah still allow undocumented immigrants to get licenses as well. Utah, however, allows only “drivers certificates,” which are not valid for a range of other things, such as boarding a plane and buying alcohol, that state identification typically covers.
“The most common argument you hear against it is it’s an argument of attrition—if we make their lives miserable, the undocumented will go away,” Christine Neumann-Ortiz, director of Voces de la Frontera, told Fox earlier this year. “I think that argument doesn’t stand up to reality, when you look at states like California, where a majority of undocumented immigrants have had no access to driver’s licenses,” she said.
“The undocumented do not go away. The only consequence of those state policies is you have more unlicensed, uninsured drivers on the road because by and large, public transportation is not as convenient as it is in other parts of the world.”
Don’t tell that to Gov. Martinez.