New Mexico’s rancorous five-year fight over allowing immigrants without legal status to drive lawfully is within an eyelash of being resolved.
State senators voted 41-1 Saturday evening for a bill that would maintain driving privileges for people without proof of immigration status and still make the state compliant with the Real ID Act, a federal identification system.
The bill next moves to the House of Representatives for concurrence, which is almost a sure thing. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who for four years had demanded a repeal of the law that allowed immigrants without legal status living in the state to obtain a New Mexico driver’s license, softened her position this session. She said she will sign the bill that gives immigrants driving authorization cards. Her stand means the Republican-controlled House also will accept the bill that started in the House but has been heavily amended by senators.
Under it, U.S. citizens will have the choice of getting a driver’s license compliant with the Real ID Act, or a driving authorization card that immigrants will receive. The House bill would have required citizens to get a Real ID license, meaning they would have had to present a passport or certified copy of their birth certificate at a Motor Vehicle Division Office.
Now citizens who don’t want a driver’s license that meets Real ID specifications can opt for the driving authorization card that immigrants without legal status also will receive. The card will not be valid identification for federal purposes. So those with the card will need a passport or other recognized identification document to board a commercial airplane.
Two conservative senators who once stood with Martinez on a repeal of the licensing law crafted the compromise bill. Sens. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, and Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said the public wanted the infighting to end.
“You just can’t keep digging in in the Legislature and say my way or the highway,” Smith said.
Fellow senators heaped praise on Smith and Ingle for leading the way on the bill. Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, was among them.
Lopez cast the only vote against the bill, even though she has been a steadfast supporter of letting immigrants drive lawfully. She voted for the breakthrough licensing law in 2003.
Lopez’s vote against the compromise bill was a protest against a provision that requires immigrants without legal status who do not have a current New Mexico driver’s license or identification card to be fingerprinted to obtain a driving authorization card. Lopez, in a news conference last week, said fingerprinting would discourage people from obtaining driving cards, which are helpful to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in seeking help and safety.
But under the bill senators approved, 90,000 immigrants who now have New Mexico driver’s licenses will not have to provide fingerprints.
Smith, in his floor speech, praised Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, for urging the Senate to reach a compromise. Smith in a later interview said Sanchez had been the target of ugly attacks, but all he ever said was, ‘John, let’s try to get this done.’ ”
Sanchez said he was happy the long fight was over. “I made it clear to our caucus that we were going to get this resolved this year, one way or another,” Sanchez said.
He also said the issue “could have been solved two, three, four years ago. It should have been solved last year.”
Senators in 2015 voted 35-5 for a compromise bill by Smith and Ingle that was similar to the one approved Saturday. Martinez, though, still wanted an outright repeal of the system that allows immigrants to drive lawfully, so the GOP-controlled House declined to act last year on the Senate bill.
Senators in their debate Saturday still showed how touchy the issue is, even when almost everyone is in agreement.
Sens. Sander Rue and Mark Moores, both Republicans from Albuquerque, referred to immigrants as “aliens” in their floor speeches. Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, replied: “Never, ever should a human being be referred to as an alien.”
But senators were in no mood to fight after so many years of doing just that regarding driver’s licenses. Many said New Mexico, a melting pot state on the border, found a way to solve a divisive problem.
“This is a win for public safety. This is a win for compassion to immigrants,” said Sen. John Ryan, R-Los Ranchos.
And Sen. John Pinto, a 91-year-old veteran of World War II, spoke up for immigrants who he said help the state’s economy. “I don’t think we should deny the driver’s license to the people, the good people,” said Pinto, D-Gallup. “How can they get to work and earn a living?”