When Lynn Pickard agreed to help a man get an appointment for a new driver’s license at the state Motor Vehicle Division, she thought it would be as simple as making a phone call or visiting a website.
A volunteer with Los Amigos del Parque, Pickard serves breakfast to the day laborers who wait for work outside the state Department of Workforce Solutions by De Vargas Park. One of the laborers asked for Pickard’s help, saying that, when he tried to call the MVD hotline to make an appointment, he kept getting a busy signal.
The same thing happened when Pickard tried to call the hotline, so she went to the MVD website. She found that the system wouldn’t allow her to make an appointment, indicating that there were none open for the next 60 days and that dates after that were too distant for scheduling. Pickard tried again at the stroke of midnight, thinking she could get the very first appointment that became available, then at various times in the middle of the night. She was finally able to schedule an appointment for mid-September, after several days of experimentation and calls to MVD higher-ups.
“Either the [Gov. Susana Martinez] administration is making it deliberately impossible for people to make appointments or it’s a case of bureaucratic indifference,” Pickard says. “The system is messed up, and they’re not fixing it.”
Even before she took office, Martinez had voiced her opposition to the state’s policy allowing foreign nationals to get driver’s licenses. After legislators couldn’t agree on a bill that would revoke that privilege in the regular legislative session earlier this year, Martinez said she will try to tackle the issue again during a special redistricting session in September. In late July, her administration began mailing letters to 10,000 foreign nationals with New Mexico driver’s licenses, requiring them to bring proof of state residency to Albuquerque or Las Cruces for verification. The initiative is intended to discover whether a widespread problem exists with fraudulently obtained driver’s licenses.
In New Mexico, foreign nationals, unlike US citizens, can’t simply walk into the MVD for a new license, but must make an appointment.
SU Mahesh, a spokesman for the state Taxation and Revenue Department, which oversees the MVD, says there’s a simple reason why foreign nationals are having so much trouble making appointments for first-time driver’s licenses: Statewide, all appointments for the next 60 days are full, and they can’t be booked further in advance than that.
The appointment-only policy was implemented in July 2010, Mahesh says. “[Issuing driver’s licenses to foreign nationals] was taking too much time in our field offices, and it was affecting our operations,” Mahesh says. “We wanted to streamline the process.”
There are typically 150 appointment slots statewide per day. While Mahesh says the MVD is still processing 80-120 applications for new licenses per day, he didn’t provide a figure for how many of those are for foreign nationals.
“This is not denying any licenses to foreign nationals,” Mahesh says.
But American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico Executive Director Peter Simonson says both the residency verification initiative and any special obstacles foreign nationals face in trying to get driver’s licenses raise the same question: whether foreign nationals are being denied their constitutional right to equal protection and nondiscrimination.
“If those people, based on the fact that they appear to be foreign, are being forced to jump through hoops that people who do not appear to be foreign don’t have to deal with, then the state is running a great risk of violating equal protection and opening itself to civil rights litigation,” Simonson says.
A spokesman for Martinez didn’t provide a comment before press time.
A key question that remains, Simonson says, is whether there is sufficient evidence suggesting foreign nationals are substantially more likely than US citizens to try to fraudulently obtain a driver’s license. Marcela Diaz, president of the immigration reform group Somos un Pueblo Unido, says Martinez won’t find the proof of widespread driver’s license fraud that could buttress her anti-immigrant policies.
“I think she’s overreaching on this program and is pretty transparent about her obsession with driver’s licenses,” Diaz says, “and her willingness to single out and discriminate against people who followed the law.”