Real ID Crisis Is Forked Up

In chess, the move is called a fork. A player advances a piece, or develops a play, in such a way that it can potentially capture two of an opponent’s highly valued pieces. It forces that player’s next move to be a choice between the least painful of two losses. In the case of New Mexico’s immigrant driver’s license rights, we have all been forked.

In October, the Department of Homeland Security denied New Mexico's request for an extension to meet higher federal standards for issuing driver's licenses under Real ID rules enacted in 2005.

Political brinksmanship in New Mexico surrounding undocumented immigrants and driver's licenses is the reason New Mexicans now face some painful prongs. The first would come in January 2016, when the feds say New Mexico driver's licenses could cease to be a federally recognized form of identification. Potentially, New Mexicans would no longer be admitted to federally regulated buildings and facilities, such as military bases and national labs, on the basis of our state's driver's licenses as a federal ID. Eventually, these restrictions would extend to commercial aircraft, at which point New Mexicans would be required to provide a different ID to board a plane.

Worth considering here is that if New Mexico changes its ID rules, undocumented immigrants, once accountable to the scrutiny necessary to obtain driver's licenses (proof of New Mexico residency, automobile insurance), could return to negotiating a life beyond the reach of laws intended to ensure public safety.

As a border state, the predicament we now face (thanks to posturing elected officials) is one where we may be moving unnecessarily toward greater tension between our immigrant populations and New Mexicans who are US citizens, to serve a narrow political agenda at the expense of all state residents.

Here's the Thing: Whether or not you believe that undocumented immigrants should have a driver's license, or be allowed to work and live in New Mexico, with human dignity affirmed, the fact is that immigrants are already here—they are and have long been a part of the fabric of New Mexico. Immigrants lacking those precious pieces of paper are family members, friends, co-workers and neighbors. Curtailing their ability to obtain driver's licenses or singling them out as not complying with federal ID rules will not change this fact.

The state Legislature and the governor have at their disposal a way to comply with the federal law and preserve the inclusion of immigrants as a valid part of our community and economy.

Last March, a two-tier driver's license alternative, Senate Bill 653, passed the Senate with bipartisan support but died in the House. SB653 not only complied with the federal Real ID law, it offered alternatives acceptable to those on seemingly different sides of this issue.

This two-tier system would create a Real ID-compliant New Mexico driver's license for US citizens and legal immigrants. However, it would also provide the option for all New Mexicans to have a driver's license that is non-Real ID-compliant. This license would still be a driver's license, but it would be stamped to indicate that it was not intended for federal use. This option avoids singling out immigrants who don't have papers, who would otherwise be forked into a red-flag ID.

You have to admit that the politics that have been played, which put New Mexico in a confrontation with the feds over the legitimacy of our state authority, have chiefly benefited those fortifying their political careers and campaign coffers.

The rest of us have only gotten anxiety, inconvenience and, for some, the threat of economic hardship. This seems a high price for us to pay for political gamesmanship.

Andrea L. Mays is an American Studies scholar and a Santa Fean. Write the author:

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