When it comes to immigration issues, Gov. Susana Martinez has two different reputations.
There’s the national Martinez—the first female Hispanic governor in the United States, considered a bridge-builder between the Republican Party and a growing Hispanic population that leaned heavily Democratic in the last election.
That image contrasts sharply with the local Martinez. Critics say she’s alienated Hispanics by focusing her immigration policy on a single divisive issue: repealing a 2003 law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain state driver’s licenses.
“Being Latina,” says Marcela Díaz, executive director of the immigrant rights group Somos un Pueblo Unido, “doesn’t mean you’re a solution to anything.”
Yet Republicans consider Martinez such an effective ambassador that the Republican State Leadership Committee recently named her to its Future Majority Project—a multimillion-dollar effort to “identify and support new Republican candidates of Hispanic descent and women candidates for state office.”
During a meeting last month in Washington, DC, Martinez spoke of the need for a comprehensive approach to immigration. Along with attending events held by the National Governors Association, a nonpartisan group that promotes best practices for state governors, Martinez also made a more partisan stop at a closed panel discussion held by the Republican Governors Association at the Ritz Carlton.
Attendees at the panel—donors to the RGA—say Martinez advocated for a comprehensive approach to bring the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants into the legal system, secure the Mexican border and change the GOP’s tone in talking about immigration issues. Tamar Jacoby, the president and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA, moderated the Feb. 22 panel. Jacoby, whose nonprofit group advocates for business-friendly immigration reform, says Martinez emphasized “how Republicans had had the wrong tone in talking both to and about Latinos and immigrants…and how that just really, really had to change.”
“And she wasn’t only saying tone,” Jacoby tells SFR. “She was also saying substance. But she was very…eloquent on some of the tone issues.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former US Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez—who is behind the super PAC Republicans for Immigration Reform—also sat on the panel.
“[Martinez] talked about the need for a comprehensive immigration policy,” recalls audience member Bill Kilberg, a partner in the Washington, DC, law office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. She said the US should “bring people out into the open,” Kilberg recalls—“to give them the opportunity so they don’t have to hide, so that they have Social Security numbers, they pay taxes and to—essentially, a green card system. She also talked about the need for temporary labor, to bring temporary labor, and legally, in the United States that would go back and forth across the border. So, to deal with the people who are here [and those] who might come in the future.”
Yet that inclusive rhetoric doesn’t match up with her actions in New Mexico, where Martinez has made it a priority to repeal a 2003 law allowingundocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. In 2011, radio ads paid for by Martinez’ campaign committee urged listeners to dissuade state legislators from blocking a repeal vote. The radio ad warned that two Salvadoran gang members linked to multiple robberies and a murder “had driver’s licenses.” In 2012, political action committees supporting Martinez spent thousands attacking lawmakers for voting against a repeal.
This past session, instead of calling for outright repeal, lawmakers proposed a two-tiered licensing system in which foreign nationals could apply for a provisional license. Yet to Díaz, it was hardly progress.
“Her faux compromises actually managed to be worse than her previous repeal bills,” Díaz says, adding that there’s a “stark disconnect” between Martinez’ national persona on immigration issues and her local policy stances. Martinez’ office did not respond to SFR’s requests for comment.
Wendy Feliz, communications director for the American Immigration Council, a pro-immigration nonprofit based in Washington, DC, notes that while it’s the federal government’s responsibility to shape immigration policy, more states are moving toward pro-immigration “proposals that integrate people, that educate people, that are essentially good for the state economy.” Utah, for instance, made headlines in 2011 for passing a package of laws that included a statewide guest-worker program.
“I think people just realized that it’s expensive and painful for a state to pursue these anti-immigrant proposals,” Feliz says. “Because it alienates people, it pushes people out of communities—particularly sometimes people you need, who work in particular industries that are really dependent on immigrants.”
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