SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Republican Gov. Susana Martinez's administration told lawmakers Thursday that New Mexico has become a magnet for illegal immigrants coming from other states to obtain a driver's license and officials urged repeal of the license law.
State law enforcement officials told a legislative committee that the New Mexico licensing law poses a security risk to the state and rest of the country.
"This has never been an immigration issue. It's not about immigration. It's simply about public safety and security," said Keith Gardner, the governor's chief of staff.
But church leaders and immigrant rights advocates disagreed, saying a driver's license is critical for immigrants living and working in New Mexico, many with U.S.-born children. The push to repeal New Mexico's law is stirring an anti-immigrant sentiment, they said.
"I think it is about immigration ... it is about divisiveness," said Santa Fe Mayor David Coss. "We should stop calling people in our community illegal aliens."
The House Labor and Human Resources Committee plans to vote later Thursday, and the governor's proposal faces strong opposition.
The panel's five Democrats, who account for a majority of the votes, opposed a similar bill last year that passed the House but failed later in the Senate.
The legislation will prohibit the state from granting licenses to illegal immigrants. However, it continues to allow licenses for foreign nationals in the country legally, such as students with visa.
New Mexico and Washington are the only states that allow illegal immigrants to obtain the same driver's license as a U.S. citizen. Utah grants immigrants a driving permit that can't be used for identification, unlike a driver's license that helps people open bank accounts and make financial transactions or board a commercial airliner.
Martinez contends that New Mexico's license system is subject to widespread fraud. The state has brought charges against several fraud rings, in which brokers were paid to supplement fraudulent documents for foreign nationals from Poland, China, Mexico and other countries.
A review of license data by The Associated Press found that dozens of addresses — including some for businesses such as a smoke shop — have been used over and over again by immigrants to get a driver's license. The pattern suggests people are abusing the state's licensing system.
"Only two states in the country offer a driver's license to illegal immigrants, and this has generated an industry of fraud, trafficking, and organized crime in New Mexico, as people from all throughout the world have come to our state for the purpose of fraudulently obtaining our government-issued ID and leaving the state — to places, and for purposes, that are unknown," Scott Darnell, a spokesman for the governor, said before the hearing.
Supporters of the current policy contend the state doesn't need to repeal its law to deal with potential fraud and they say a driver's license is vital to the immigrant community living and working in New Mexico, some of whom have been here for years and have U.S.-born children.
"It is important the state is enforcing the law. When the law is enforced, the law works," said Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The AP identified 170 addresses in New Mexico at which 10 or more licenses have been issued to different foreign nationals from 2003 through August 2011. Those account for 2,662 licenses — representing nearly 3 percent of the total issued to foreign nationals during that period. The AP limited its analysis to addresses with a high number of licenses to try to get an indication of the extent of possible fraud. Large families or frequent tenant turnover at rental property are among the legitimate reasons why there are addresses with fewer than 10 licenses over a period of time.
Democrats who oppose the governor's proposal are pushing alternatives. The Senate approved a Democratic-backed measure last year that would have increased penalties on license fraud, required fingerprinting of immigrants seeking a license and canceled current licenses of foreign nationals that weren't renewed within two years — allowing the state to verify whether a foreign national remained a New Mexico resident.
New Mexico changed its law in 2003 to grant driver's licenses to anyone without a Social Security number, which are unavailable to people living illegally in the country. More than 90,000 licenses have been issued to immigrants, and state officials speculate that most of those have gone to illegal immigrants. However, it's impossible to know for certain because license applicants aren't asked about their immigration status.
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