New Mexico issued the fewest number of new driver’s licenses to immigrants in 2015 since a 2003 law was approved that allows immigrants without legal status to obtain a license, according to statistics released Tuesday.
The state Taxation and Revenue Department released the numbers as lawmakers, in the current legislative session, continue to debate changes to the driver’s license law in order to make state licenses compliant with the federal Real ID Act.
According to Tuesday’s report, the state issued 4,026 driver’s licenses in 2015 to immigrants applying for the first time, a 12 percent drop in new licenses for foreign nationals from 2014. Those numbers include licenses for both immigrants without legal status and immigrants who have legal residency in the U.S. The 2003 law doesn’t require state officials to ask for legal status, but it does distinguish between immigrant applicants and U.S. citizens.
The peak for immigrant licenses in New Mexico was in 2010, a year before Gov. Susana Martinez became governor, with 15,332 new licenses issued to immigrants. That year, Arizona approved a law requiring police officers to question people about their immigration status, causing many immigrants to flee the state and move to New Mexico.
Since 2003, New Mexico has issued 116,020 driver’s licenses to immigrants.
Martinez has made several unsuccessful efforts to revoke licenses from immigrants without legal status since she took office. Her office didn’t respond to an email Tuesday from The New Mexican seeking comment on the new report.
It’s unclear why the number of new immigrant licenses dwindled last year, but according to a recent study, the number of immigrants living in the state without legal status also has fallen.
A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center, a Washington, D.C.-based research institute, says between 2009 and 2012, New Mexico lost 20,000 “unauthorized” immigrants, a drop from 90,000 to 70,000 during that time period.
The lack of jobs and a slow recovery of the economy have caused many immigrants to leave the state, immigration experts have said.
This week, the state Senate Finance Committee is expected to debate an amended Republican-sponsored bill that would create a two-tier driver’s license system. Under the measure, U.S. citizens and immigrants with lawful status would be able to obtain a Real ID-compliant license. Those who don’t want a federally approved license and immigrants without legal status — who don’t qualify for one — would be able to get a driving authorization card that couldn’t be used for federal purposes.
Under the original proposal, the state would fingerprint driving card applicants and check the FBI’s criminal database to determine if there are any outstanding warrants for the applicant. If a warrant is found, state officials would have to notify immigration officials, which could lead to an applicant’s deportation.
Martinez has said she would veto any bill that doesn’t have this provision. She says such a provision would deter fraud.
In 2015, Utah passed a law that would require criminal background checks on people who apply for a driving privilege card in that state. Under the law, state officials would notify federal immigration officials if they found a warrant out for an applicant. But the FBI told the state it couldn’t use the agency’s database for this purpose.
Utah lawmakers plan to amend the law. Instead of using the FBI database, officials would use a local database to conduct background checks on driving card applicants.
New Mexico lawmakers have spent a lot of time on the issue because in October, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said it wouldn’t grant the state an extension to become Real ID-compliant. This meant that certain secured federal institutions wouldn’t accept a New Mexico license as a form of identification.
The federal government said, however, that New Mexicans can continue to use their driver’s licenses to board a commercial domestic flight until at least 2018.