Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House on Wednesday passed a bill aimed at making New Mexico driver’s license laws compliant with the federal Real ID Act, despite strong opposition from Democrats to certain provisions and protests from immigrant rights advocates.
After a three-hour debate, House Bill 99, sponsored by Albuquerque Republican Rep. Paul Pacheco, cleared the House on a 39-30 vote, largely along party lines.
The bill now heads to the Democrat-controlled Senate, where a major sticking point is the Republican plan to create driving privilege cards for undocumented immigrants, who currently can apply for a regular driver’s license.
Opponents object that an applicant who is issued such a card would be identifiable to police as an immigrant living in the United States without legal status, which most Democrats have termed a “Scarlet letter” that could lead to profiling.
Since the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced last October that New Mexico driver’s licenses eventually would not be recognized for federal purposes, lawmakers have proposed various compromises that they say will resolve the issue. The federal government has said New Mexico residents can use their current licenses to board domestic commercial flights until 2018.
The opposition to the GOP-sponsored bill spilled onto social media. Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, posted a comment on Facebook on Wednesday that compared Pacheco’s bill to slavery.
“For hundreds of years our legal system legitimized and sanctioned slavery and discrimination throughout the country,” Martinez wrote. “Today, House Republicans and Gov. (Susana) Martinez seek to legitimize discrimination against undocumented immigrants through their proposal.”
That comment angered some Republicans, who said it shows that the Democrat doesn’t understand the issue.
Pacheco and fellow Republicans defended his bill on the House floor, arguing that his proposal isn’t racist, as immigrant rights advocates have labeled it.
Democrats, however, accused Republicans of targeting undocumented immigrants under the pretext of trying to comply with the Real ID Act, a 10-year-old law Congress passed in an attempt to regulate state driver’s licenses.
Gov. Susana Martinez, who took office in 2011, has vowed to seek repeal of the law that allows the state to issue licenses to applicants without proof of immigration status. Her efforts to get a repeal through the Legislature repeatedly have failed. However, she is backing Pacheco’s bill.
Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, said that since she became governor “there has been a semblance of fear and a semblance of hate targeting our immigrant community.”
Pacheco’s bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Andy Nuñez, R-Hatch, would create a two-tiered driver’s license system that would make U.S. citizens and immigrants with lawful status obtain a Real ID-approved license. Undocumented immigrants would receive a driving-privilege card that would state that it can’t be used for federal purposes such as entering a military base.
Garcia also opposed a section of the bill that would require the state Department of Public Safety to record fingerprints of undocumented immigrants who are issued a renewable, one-year driving-privilege card. The department would then check those fingerprints against state and regional criminal records databases to see if the person is wanted by a law enforcement agency.
Garcia said this could lead to the deportation of immigrants because the state would start keeping track of the state’s undocumented immigrant population for immigration officials.
“Would you agree that House Bill 99 turns MVD and the New Mexico Department of Public Safety into defacto immigration enforcement agencies, creating a deportation pipeline for undocumented immigrant families?” Garcia asked Pacheco, who simply answered no.
Senate committees have not held a meeting to debate the Senate’s proposed compromise on the issue.