COMMENTARY: Gov. Susana Martinez is telling a whopper of a tale during the fight over giving driver’s licenses to immigrants living in the United States without legal status.
Martinez, a Republican, has fought for years to take away licenses from such immigrants. Until this year she has rejected compromise and tried to knock those who opposed her out of office.
Now she’s blaming Democrats for the state’s noncompliance with the federal REAL ID Act. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently came down on several states, including New Mexico, for failing for a decade to come into compliance with the law.
In part because New Mexico doesn’t require license holders to prove citizenship or legal residence, our licenses now aren’t acceptable forms of identification to get onto military bases nationwide. If New Mexico doesn’t come into compliance by 2018, the feds say we could need passports to fly domestically.
“Unfortunately, this is the reality we face: the federal government is clamping down on our citizens because Democrats in the Legislature insist on giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants,” Martinez said in a statement her office released last week. She’s repeated that line often lately.
It’s not true.
The truth: REAL ID does not prohibit states from giving driving privileges to people living there without legal status. Several REAL ID-compliant 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.
More truth: New Mexico isn’t in compliance with REAL ID because politicians from both parties, led by Martinez, have used immigrant licenses as a political wedge issue in recent years instead of compromising on that issue and making other changes necessary for compliance.
The sin committed by many Democrats was fighting to keep our license system as is – allowing people who don’t prove legal status to get licenses that are identical to those the rest of us hold – and wrongly betting the feds would never enforce REAL ID.
Many Democrats and left-leaning activists rejected the idea of implementing a two-tier licensure system when I asked about it while working on an article in 2013. Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming was a notable exception.
Martinez’s sin was refusing to compromise and trying to nuke those who fought her. Her actions paralyzed efforts toward REAL ID compliance.
Martinez told me, during an interview for my 2013 article, that she wouldn’t support a two-tier licensure system. She said she would keep fighting to take licenses away from immigrants who lacked legal status.
I asked Martinez what immigrants who used their licenses to get to work, take their kids to school, and buy groceries were supposed to do if the state took them away? Such people got around before New Mexico began allowing them to obtain licenses in 2003, she said. They could do it again.
Smith and other senators from both parties, on the other hand, made a genuine effort to compromise last year. The bill they passed, though flawed, was a step in the right direction.
With the federal government making New Mexicans face consequences for state inaction on REAL ID, Martinez has finally signaled willingness to compromise. That’s great. But deliberations in the current legislative session will lead to a better solution if the governor drops the dishonest rhetoric.