The Battle over Immigrant Driver’s Licenses Flares Anew in New Mexico

In almost ritualistic fashion, the New Mexico State Legislature is once again a battleground over the matter of driver’s licenses for unauthorized immigrants.

For the sixth time since the advent of the administration of Republican Governor Susana Martinez in 2011, lawmakers are mulling proposals to do away with or significantly alter the issuance of state driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants under a law that was first implemented during the administration of then- Democratic Governor Bill Richardson in 2003.

In far-flung New Mexico, where grossly substandard or non-existent public transportation systems prevail, the driver’s license issue has a life-or-death urgency to it. Residing in the Land of Enchantment of the 21st century without a private motor vehicle is like trying to get by without a horse in 19th century New Mexico.

The latest clash escalated last week when the New Mexico State House’s Safety and Civil Affairs Committee (HSAC) recommended “do pass” action on two relevant bills floated by GOP lawmakers, HB 32 and HB 79.

Respectively sponsored by Rep. Paul Pacheco (R-Bernalillo and Sandoval) and Rep. William Rehm (R-Bernalillo), the measures would either prohibit the possession of driver’s licenses by anyone without a social security number (HB 79) or toss out the current system (HB 32) and replace it with a two-tiered structure of driver’s licenses and identification cards defined by residency status and replete with color coding.

Governor Martinez and other critics have argued that the current system of New Mexico driver’s licenses serves as a magnet for human trafficking rings and jeopardizes public safety.

Opponents of the system, including Rep. Pacheco and New Mexico State Taxation and Revenue Department Secretary Demesia Padilla, have also recently contended that reforms are necessary for New Mexico to comply with the federal REAL ID Act.

Last week, the HSAC took action in favor of legal reforms when it passed both HB 32 and HB 79 by the presumably partisan margins of 5-4. Voting against both pieces of legislation were Democrats Romero, Roybal Caballero, Ruiloba, and Stapleton. The New Mexico State Legislature’s website, however, does not list the names of the representatives who voted in favor of the two bills.

The two bills were approved by the HSAC without updated fiscal impact information from the New Mexico State Taxation and Revenue Department.

Rhetorical fireworks earlier ensued when Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero of Albuquerque compared the color differentiation of the proposed new driver’s  licenses of HB 32 with “stories we heard about the Holocaust.” HSAC Chair William Rehm called Roybal Caballero’s words “over the top.”

As in previous years, the 2015 driver’s license battle has been an occasion for polarizing debates in cyberspace, with anti-immigrant writers posting heated messages on Albuquerque-based news sites about the alleged drain to the state economy caused by the presence of undocumented immigrants.

Marshaling their forces, supporters of the current licensing system fired back with a slew of critiques against the creation of a second-class status for some state residents.

They extolled the benefits of having unauthorized immigrants licensed, insured, and registered in the state’s data base, while enjoying freedom of movement for their families so they can easily attend to school, work, the doctor and other necessities.

Quoting local human rights and pro-immigrant activists in a press release, the New Mexico-based immigrant and labor rights organization Somos un Pueblo Unido, characterized the REAL ID issue raised by Rep. Pacheco and others as a straw man.

“It is shameful that this administration and Republican legislators keep trying to scare New Mexicans with the REAL ID Act, a law whose implementation has been postponed five times because several Republican states like Arizona and Louisiana refuse to comply,” said Marcela Diaz, Somos’ longtime executive director. “It’s clear that these repeal bills have nothing to do with the REAL ID ACT and everything to do with the Governor’s anti-immigrant agenda.”

On another point, Somos quoted Michael E. Vigil, a retired state district court judge from northern New Mexico. Vigil termed the current driver’s license law in question a “victims rights measure” in that prior to the law’s passage victims of auto accidents involving unlicensed (and uninsured) drivers had no remedies.

“I also found that in dealing with cases that required immediate treatment or counseling immigrant families could not legally drive themselves to the various required appointments,” Vigil added.

In the lead-up to last week’s House committee vote, Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) staff prepared fiscal impact reports lacking updated cost estimates for HB 32 and HB 79. The reason, according to the LFC, is that Secretary Padilla’s office did not deliver updated cost estimates of changes that would result from the bills.

Instead, the LFC analysts relied on cost estimates from the New Mexico Administrative Office of Courts, the New Mexico Attorney General Office and the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, as well as a 2013 cost estimate of similar legislation calculated by Padilla’s office.

Working with incomplete information, The LFC’s numbers crunchers projected three fiscal year costs in recurring expenses alone of $865,000 each for HB 32 and HB 79. These figures do not include the cost of implementing a new system, which is likely to add hundreds of thousands of dollars more to the final bill.

The LFC’s analysts stressed that their estimates also do not take into account the extra expenses that might accrue to the New Mexico justice system due to stiffened penalties for violations of a new driver’s licenses law and the extra application requirements contained in the 25-page HB 32.

The fiscal impact report for HB 79 even hinted at future lawsuits. According to the analysts:

“There is a question whether HB 79’s mandatory cancellation of licenses and permits granted to applicants who do not have a social security number implicates the due process rights of license and permit holders, as the bill does not provide for an opportunity for a hearing before cancellation, but rather requires the (TRD/Motor Vehicle) department to provide written notice of pending cancellation if a person’s social security number of new application is not timely submitted…”

If HB 79 is passed into law, any driver’s license held by a person without a social security number will be canceled by December 31, 2015. In 2012, New Mexico First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton issued a permanent injunction against Secretary Padilla in a legal case stemming from Padilla’s attempts to weed out undocumented non-residents of New Mexico from the driver’s licensing system.

On the relationship between federal policy and New Mexico state legislation, the LFC analysts commented that the REAL ID Act is not expected to go into full effect until October 1, 2020, and in the meantime New Mexico has an extension from the Department of Homeland Security that permits state driver’s licenses to be acceptable as routinely-used forms of identification for federal purposes.

It is important to note that the LFC analysts’ financial estimates do not consider harder-to-pin-down social and economic costs that could emerge from any possible increase in uninsured drivers or the many impacts from situations in which people are unable to easily get to work, school or the doctor

HB 32 and HB 79 now sit in the House Judiciary Committee, where they could receive positive hearings before heading to the full floor of the lower chamber, which is controlled by Republicans for the first time in decades. The fate of the two bills is less certain in the still Democratic-dominated state Senate, where similar measures have encountered death during the past few years.

Since 2003, an estimated 90,000 unauthorized immigrants residing in the state have received New Mexico driver’s licenses. In defense of the licenses and immigrant rights, Somos un Pueblo Unido and other groups plan on intensifying their mobilizations, including a march and rally scheduled for the New Mexico State Capitol in Santa Fe on Monday morning, February 2.

Additional sources:, January 30, 2015. Press, January 21, 2015.

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