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Debate over immigrant driver’s license in N.M. intensifies

Governor says law is making state a magnet

SANTA FE - Governor Susana Martinez’s administration told lawmakers yesterday that New Mexico has become a magnet for illegal immigrants coming from other states to obtain a driver’s license, and officials urged repeal of the license law.

State law enforcement officials told a legislative committee that the New Mexico licensing law poses a security risk to the state and rest of the country.

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“This has never been an immigration issue,’’ said Keith Gardner, the Republican governor’s chief of staff. “It’s not about immigration. It’s simply about public safety and security.’’

But church leaders and immigrant rights advocates disagreed, saying a driver’s license is critical for immigrants living and working in New Mexico, many with US-born children. The push to repeal New Mexico’s law is stirring an anti-immigrant sentiment, they said.

“I think it is about immigration . . . it is about divisiveness,’’ said Santa Fe’s mayor, David Coss. “We should stop calling people in our community illegal aliens.’’

The committee’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 US citizen. Utah grants immigrants a driving permit that cannot be used for identification, unlike a driver’s license, which can help people open bank accounts, make financial transactions, and 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 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.

“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,’’ Scott Darnell, a spokesman for the governor, said before the hearing.

Supporters of the current policy contend the state does not 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 US-born children.

“It is important the state is enforcing the law,’’ said Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops. “When the law is enforced, the law works.’’

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