If Gerardo Alfredo De Luna needs to give up his driver’s license and get a driving authorization card, he’ll do it. But he says he will not give up his fingerprints to a law enforcement agency to get such a card.
“I work just as hard as any U.S. citizens, and I pay my taxes,” said De Luna, 52, an immigrant without legal status from Mexico who has lived in Santa Fe for the past 11 years. “I would feel insecure because I would be giving up my fingerprints to police, and that could lead to worse things.”
This is what Gov. Susana Martinez wants, and if she gets her way, De Luna, along with thousands of other immigrants without legal status living in the state, would have to submit their fingerprints to the state Department Public Safety in order to legally drive.
The current debate in the state Senate surrounding a bill that would make New Mexico compliant with the federal Real ID Act centers on whether the state should collect fingerprints from immigrants without legal status who want to get a driving privilege card. The federal law doesn’t require states to collect fingerprints from anyone, but Republicans say such a provision would prevent fraud.
Under the original House proposal, the state would check the FBI’s criminal database to determine if there are any existing warrants for an applicant. If a warrant is found, state officials would have to notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, which could lead to the applicant’s deportation.
The sponsor of that bill, Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, has said his bill was modeled after a new law in Utah.
But if New Mexico follows the Utah model, which is currently compliant with the Real ID Act, the state could hit a roadblock. The FBI has told Utah it can’t use the agency’s criminal database to do searches on applicants trying to obtain a driving privilege card and then share that information with immigration officials.
“We have never been able to implement that,” said Chris Caras, the director of Utah’s driver’s license division. “We had to notify the legislature that it wasn’t authorized by the federal government.”
In New Mexico, Pacheco’s bill has passed the Republican-controlled House. But Democrats in the Senate Public Affairs Committee amended the bill and stripped the fingerprinting provision. On Friday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the amended bill on a 10-0 vote, with four Republicans joining the six Democrats on the panel. The bill will go to the Senate Finance Committee next week, its last stop before the full Senate.
As the bill stands now, it would create a two-year driving authorization card for immigrants without legal status. U.S. citizens and immigrants with lawful status could get a Real ID-compliant driver’s license — but if they don’t want one, they would be able to get a four-year driving card. This card wouldn’t be recognized for federal purposes.
Most House Republicans have said that stripping the fingerprint provision from Pacheco’s bill is a deal breaker, and that if the amended bill passes the Senate, GOP House members won’t support it.
Immigrant advocates and Democrats, who support the amended bill, say requiring immigrants without legal status to get fingerprinted is discriminatory and could turn the state Motor Vehicle Division into an immigration enforcement agency.
Still, Martinez has said she will veto any license bill in New Mexico that doesn’t have that requirement.
“The governor believes that the final bill should include fingerprinting and other measures to deter fraud,” said Chris Sanchez, a Martinez spokesman, in an email Friday.
If that’s the case, lawmakers will have to find a way to do criminal background checks without violating the FBI policy.
Since 2005, Utah has allowed immigrants without legal status to get a driving privilege card, which is not compliant with the Real ID law. But starting in 2011, the state began collecting fingerprints from anyone who applied for a driving card. The fingerprints have been used in regional criminal background checks, Caras said. If a warrant is found, officials notify the local law enforcement agency.
In 2015, Utah approved a new law that would require the state to use the FBI’s criminal database to conduct background checks on driving privilege card applicants. That law was approved because the state’s background check system before 2015 had failed to catch one applicant who was accused of killing two law enforcement officers in California.
But shortly before the state implemented the new law last summer, the FBI said the state couldn’t use its database to do criminal background checks on driving privilege card applicants. That violated federal policy, the agency said.
Caras said a current proposal in the Utah legislature calls for the state to return to using a regional criminal database to do checks on driving card applicants. But, he said, the state would still be able to share that information with immigration agents if there was an outstanding criminal warrant for an applicant.
Frank Fisher, a spokesman for the FBI in Albuquerque, didn’t immediately know if the federal agency would have an issue with Pacheco’s proposal.
Delaware, one of two states that in the past few months have begun issuing some type of license to undocumented immigrants, is the only other state that collects fingerprints from immigrant applicants. But in that state, the Department of Safety and Homeland Security conducts statewide background checks, and it doesn’t contact immigration officials if it finds an applicant with an outstanding federal warrant.
Delaware, which is compliant with the Real ID Act, does notify a local law enforcement agency if it finds an outstanding warrant for an applicant. And if it finds a discrepancy with an applicant’s name, the state notifies the FBI, which completes a background check to find out who that person really is.
Before December 2015, the state didn’t provide any type of license to immigrants without legal status.
Delaware state Sen. Bryan Townsend, a Democrat, said the state wanted to be compliant with the Real ID Act but also wanted to allow immigrants without legal status to drive legally. Like the current debate in New Mexico, the sticking point was fingerprinting, Townsend said.
“It sounds like New Mexico already has a system in place that there’s enough support to keep the law the way it is,” Townsend said. “In Delaware, this system would not be put into place without the fingerprints. And the alternative we faced was have nothing.”
De Luna, who works in construction, said Gov. Martinez shouldn’t use New Mexico’s immigrants as “scapegoats” and the pretext to make the state compliant with the Real ID Act. He said if Martinez truly wants New Mexico to be compliant with Real ID, she should push for lawmakers to pass a law that would create a separate, federally approved identification.