White Sands Missile Range announced Monday that it will no longer consider a New Mexico driver’s license a valid form of identification to get visitors onto the base.
Meanwhile, state-level politicians, who for years have failed to implement the standards required by the federal REAL ID Act, continued a war of words over giving driver’s licenses to immigrants who lack legal status.
The WSMR announcement is the first tangible impact New Mexicans are feeling as a result of Sunday’s decision by the U.S. Homeland Security Department to declare the state out of compliance with the REAL ID Act. The change at WSMR won’t affect people who work on base or parents who need to get their children to the public school located there. It will impact New Mexicans who want to check out the well-traveled museum on base or visit WSMR for any other reason. They’ll need an alternate form of identification in addition to a background check to get on base.
“The biggest effect it’s going to have on us is the visitors to the museum, unfortunately,” said Erin Dorrance, WSMR’s chief of public affairs.
Gov. Susana Martinez’s spin machine kicked into high gear following the WSMR announcement.
“This is further confirmation that New Mexicans are being punished by the federal government because Democrats in the legislature insist on granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants,” Martinez’s spokesman was quoted by KOB-TV as saying. “And unless we stop this dangerous practice, their next measure will be forcing New Mexicans to buy passports in order to board an aircraft for domestic travel.”
The reality is that nothing in the REAL ID Act prohibits states from giving driving privileges to people living there without legal status. Several REAL ID-complaint states have two different types of licenses — a compliant license that’s valid for federal purposes and given to those who prove legal status, and a noncompliant card for everyone else that lets them drive legally.
Martinez has demanded for years that the Legislature repeal New Mexico’s 2003 law that grants licenses to immigrants without legal status. Democrats long fought to keep that law in place even though it wasn’t compliant with REAL ID.
Now all sides are talking about a compromise, two-tier system. But the details matter.
The GOP proposal’s requirements for obtaining a license if you don’t have legal status are strict and would strip some current license holders of their ability to drive legally in New Mexico. Democratic legislative leaders are pushing less-stringent requirements that would still likely take away some immigrants’ licenses.
So while people living in New Mexico with legal status are currently having to show alternative ID to visit WSMR, many immigrants are facing the possibility of losing the ability to legally drive to work, school, the doctor’s office, and the grocery store.
The number of immigrants who would be impacted is impossible to quantify. The state can’t track how many of the tens of thousands of immigrants living in New Mexico without legal status have licenses.
Democrats downplayed threat
On Friday, the federal government announced that it will begin enforcing REAL ID requirements at airports in 2018. If that happens, people living in states that don’t comply with REAL ID would need a passport or other accepted identification to board a plane.
At any point before then, other federal facilities could join WSMR in requiring alternate ID. WSMR originally said last week that it would continue to accept New Mexico licenses but cautioned that could change if a new directive came down from the U.S. Army.
Through it all, the U.S. Homeland Security Department said residents “from a noncompliant state without extensions will need to show an alternative form of ID when visiting federal facilities, nuclear power plants and military bases.”
In spite of that uncertainty, three Democratic legislative leaders — Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, and House Minority Leader Brian Egolf — downplayed the threat on Friday, accusing Martinez of overblowing the situation.
“…no changes in gaining entry to New Mexico’s military bases and national laboratories are anticipated,” their Friday news release stated — even though federal officials weren’t providing such assurances.
Then the new Army directive about WSMR came down over the weekend.
Lawmakers will consider proposals related to REAL ID and driver’s licenses for immigrants without legal status when they meet in the 30-day session that begins Jan. 19.