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Politics Propels Driver's License Debate

John Hartman via Flickr
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New Mexico state representatives voted Thursday to repeal a state law that allows people to get New Mexico driver’s licenses even if they’re in the country illegally.  Some observers see this as a political battle in which winning the war isn’t as important as fighting the battle.

Pointing to several examples of fraud, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez asked state lawmakers again this year to stop allowing immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally to get driver’s licenses here.

But immigrant rights activists like Marcela Diaz of Somos Un Pueblo Unido say the bill, versions of which have failed in previous sessions, is about politics, not security.

“This really isn’t about New Mexico at all,” Diaz told the People, Power and Democracy Project. "It really is about the governor’s national aspirations within the Republican Party. This is a way for Governor Martinez to continue to placate the anti-immigrant faction within her base and continue to raise money.”

Martinez has mentioned the issue in her fundraising appeals. In a 2013 email to supporters she wrote: “Over the last few years, we have passed the repeal out of the state House, but it has been killed by liberal Democrats in the Senate. Now, our opponents want us to give up. They are organized and well financed so I am asking you to join me by contributing whatever you can to help make sure we go into the session prepared to fight.”

The immigrant-rights movement is not particularly powerful or well-moneyed, state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino told the Albuquerque Journal that year. “The people that are opposing the governor for the most part have zero dollars.”

Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, who is sponsoring the bill (HB 32) says his aim was to make the license system more secure and to bring the state into compliance with the federal Real ID Act. The measure is expected to fail in the state Senate, which is controlled by Democrats.

This story is part of a reporting partnership between New Mexico In Depth, KUNM and NMPBS, People, Power and Democracy, that attempts to pull back the curtain on how the New Mexico Legislature works and, in some cases, doesn’t. It's funded by the Thornburg Foundation and the Loeks Family Fund.

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