New Mexico Immigrant Advocates Hail Court Action

Immigrant advocates in New Mexico praised a court settlement announced last week that effectively laid to rest a controversial driver’s license certification program  implemented by the state Motor Vehicle Division (MVD) last year.

In a mutually-agreed upon resolution to a legal challenge filed against the program, New Mexico First Judicial District Judge Sarah M. Singleton issued a permanent injunction against  Demesia Padilla, secretary of the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department, ordering the state official from further carrying out the Foreign National Residency Certification Program, which was officially launched to weed out undocumented, non-residents who claimed New Mexico residency in order to obtain a state driver’s license. Certification opponents charged that the program had a different purpose.

“This discriminatory program was clearly intended to fuel an anti-immigrant political agenda in New Mexico, and we are relieved that it did not prevail,” said Maria Cristina Lopez, board member of the statewide immigrant and labor advocacy group Somos un Pueblo Unido. “We’re all for fighting fraud and abuse, but the state should not be wasting tax payer money by targeting people based on their race and national origin.  It’s simply unacceptable in New Mexico,” Lopez said in a statement.

Allen Sanchez, director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, joined with Somos in hailing Judge Singleton’s order.

Since 2003, undocumented residents of New Mexico have been able to acquire driver’s licenses if they could pass the appropriate tests and prove state residency. Since taking office early last year, the administration of Republican Governor Susana Martinez has steadfastly opposed granting driver’s licenses to undocumented residents, but has so far failed to get the New Mexico State Legislature to repeal the 2003 driver’s license law approved during the first term of former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson.

In pressing its case for repeal, the current state administration has cited several high-profile cases of suspected human traffickers and phony document dealers obtaining licenses for undocumented immigrants who do not reside in New Mexico.

But attorney David H. Urias and other immigrant advocates insist that the certification program, rolled out by the Martinez administration without prior legislative approval, was meant to fan pro-repeal sentiment in time for a 2011 special session of lawmakers.

During the lead-up to the session in the summer of 2011, the MVD mailed letters to 10,000 people listed as foreign national license holders, initially demanding  that the recipients schedule an appointment with the agency’s Albuquerque office, a location sometimes hours away from a recipient’s home, in order to prove their state residency or face the revocation of their license.

“It was definitely a fishing expedition that was investigating people based on national origin,” contended Urias, a partner in an Albuquerque law firm and co-counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) who represented a group of plaintiffs that successfully obtained a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction from the First Judicial District against the certification program last year.

The plaintiffs included Marisela Morales, a legal permanent U.S. resident who was forced to travel the long distance from her home in Silver City to Albuquerque, as well as  New Mexico state legislators Miguel Garcia, Jerry Ortiz y Pino, Howie Morales and Eliseo Alcon. In their petition for court relief, the plaintiffs contended that the MVD’s program violated the equal protection and separation of powers sections of the New Mexico Constitution.

In a phone interview with FNS, Urias said information gathered by plaintiffs’ lawyers exposed instances of discrimination against driver’s license holders, particularly people of Mexican national origin, and revealed a broad net that pulled in U.S. citizens and permanent residents as well as undocumented persons for residency certification appointments. “It was obvious the MVD had no idea what (letter recipients’) status was,” Urias said.

The Albuquerque lawyer criticized as greatly exaggerated media coverage which suggested that the 3,000 letters sent back to the MVD pointed to widespread fraud and criminal hanky panky.

But after inspecting the letters, Urias said the plaintiffs’ legal team was able to identify only a “handful” in which it appeared the person might have never lived at an address given to the MVD, with the vast majority of the letters likely returned because the person had moved or otherwise done nothing else wrong.

According to Urias, the certification program treated Latino and non-Latino license holders differently. In some cases Latinos, especially Mexican nationals, were not allowed to leave the MVD office to fetch additional documents required by the state agency, while Anglo immigrants were permitted to do so and return with the paperwork, he said.

Urias said evidence of the discrimination is contained in a whistle-blower/wrongful employment termination lawsuit filed by a former MVD employee. “That case has given us a lot of evidence about the poor orientation of this program.” he said.

Dated October 3,  the permanent injunction orders the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department to pay plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees and other costs within 30 days, and bars Secretary Padilla and the MVD from sending out new communications related to the driver’s license certification program. Judge Singleton also spelled out detailed conditions under which the MVD could precede with an investigation of a driver’s license holder targeted for a residency verification appointment, as long as the person was sent a letter before the issuance of the temporary restraining order on August 31, 2011.

“The Department will not suspend or cancel licenses or identification cards solely because the letter was returned undeliverable,” she wrote. “If the Department chooses to take further action regarding the letters identified above, further investigation as permitted by law would be needed prior to any suspension or cancellation.”

In agreeing to the permanent injunction, Secretary Padilla did not “admit liability and specifically denies it,” Judge Singleton’s legal order reads.

Neither the Governor’s office nor Secretary Padilla immediately issued statements on the outcome of the First Judicial District Court case. Repeal of the 2003 driver’s license law is likely to be an issue once again in the 2013 State Legislature, which could contain many new elected representatives.

Urias and other immigrant advocates plan to keep a close eye on the issue. “MALDEF will be there to protect the rights of all Latinos in New Mexico, regardless of immigration status,” he vowed.

-Kent Paterson

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