Count on a renewed debate over driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants this January. Gov. Susana Martinez has vowed to bring up the issue a third time, despite facing the same Legislature that didn't alter the law during her last two attempts.
The first time, Martinez came close. In March, the Democrat-controlled state House of Representatives voted 42-28 in favor of the repeal after hours of heated debate.
"Once we got to the end result, the vote was overwhelming," state Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Curry, who co-sponsored the legislation, tells SFR.
Yet the Senate responded by offering a bill that kept the existing driver's license law in place, but tightened restrictions on eligibility and required fingerprinting. Martinez scoffed at the compromise, promising a veto if it ever reached her desk.
Roch says the Senate legislation wasn't a true compromise because it veered away from the original intention of the House bill: to eliminate the law. He says concerns about identity theft and complying with the federal Real ID Act make the issue a top priority [SFReporter.com, July 13: "Rep. Roch Steps Up Effort to Change Driver's License Law"]. Still, the state has been able to substantiate only a handful of identity theft cases among New Mexico drivers, and the Real ID Act has itself endured a rocky path: At least 40 states have passed or plan to pass noncompliance resolutions.
And despite Martinez' Jan. 31 executive order requiring state police officers to check and report the immigration status of "criminal suspects," SFR found that the new policy had been implemented haphazardly [news, July 13: "Arizona Lite"].
Also in July, Martinez announced that the state would require proof of residency from 10,000 randomly selected foreign nationals with New Mexico driver's licenses.
In August, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a lawsuit against the state, and District Court Judge Sarah Singleton temporarily halted the verification program. By the time the special legislative session began in September, resistance to Martinez' renewed effort to repeal the driver's license law had stiffened.
As recently as December, Martinez has used a 2010 Albuquerque Journal poll, which found 72 percent of the state's likely voters in favor of repealing the driver's license law, as a primary justification. But now, even that assertion faces competition.
Recently, Lake Research Partners, a firm led by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, found 64 percent of likely voters in favor of a compromise similar to the state Senate's proposal [SFReporter.com, Dec. 8: "Poll: 64 Percent of State Voters Favor Driver's License Compromise"]. Another kicker: Just 10 percent of the state considers the driver's license question the most pressing issue at hand.
"This really isn't a big issue and won't solve bigger issues," Marcela Diaz, executive director of immigrants rights group Somos un Pueblo Unido, tells SFR.
Allen Sánchez, the executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, cites scripture in justifying a "compassionate, gentle yet firm" compromise to the issue. At issue is the safety of drivers and passengers in New Mexico, he says.
"A driver's license isn't just about identifying who you are," Sánchez tells SFR.
Martinez' office didn't respond to emails or calls for this story before press time.