SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A proposal to stop driver's licenses for illegal immigrants in New Mexico is heading to the Democratic-dominated House for a politically difficult vote that likely will resonate in this year's re-election campaigns of members of the Legislature.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 9-6 on Friday to endorse a measure backed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez to overturn a 2003 law that allows driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. Two Democrats joined with seven Republicans in agreeing to send the measure to the 70-member House, which approved a similar proposal last year.
But critics of the proposal predicted that Martinez won't succeed in winning enactment of the legislation because it's likely to fail in the Senate, where Democrats hold a stronger majority than in the House.
Before the committee voted, Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat, described the governor's proposal as a "political football." Republicans have hopes of winning a majority in the House in this year's elections.
But Rep. David Doyle, an Albuquerque Republican, said the current law creates incentives for illegal immigration.
Unless New Mexico ends its license policy, he said, "we become the open door state that allows illegal activity."
New Mexico and Washington are the only states that grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and others without a Social Security number. Utah issues a special permit allowing immigrants to drive but, unlike a driver's license, it doesn't serve as a widely accepted government-issued form of identification.
More than 90,000 licenses have been issued to foreign nationals in New Mexico since 2003 when the state eliminated the requirement for license applicants to have a Social Security number.
The governor says it's a public safety risk to issue licenses to illegal immigrants, and administration officials contend New Mexico is a magnet for immigrants to get a license and then leave. The administration tried last year to force immigrants with licenses to recertify their residency in New Mexico, but a lawsuit halted the program.
Supporters of the current law include church leaders, including New Mexico's Roman Catholic Church bishops, social advocacy organizations and immigration rights groups. New Mexico's license law, they say, is a practical approach for confronting a broader immigration problem and deals with the reality that some of the people working and raising families in New Mexico are illegally in the country. Without a license, those immigrants can't legally drive to their jobs or transport their children to school and doctor's appointments.
Democrats supporting the current license law are pushing an alternative to the governor's plan — a move they hope will potentially insulate some of their members from expected campaign attacks on the issue. The proposal continues to allow driver's licenses for illegal immigrants but imposes new restrictions, including fingerprinting of applicants and a six-month residency requirement. Supporters describe it as a compromise that will crack down on the license fraud that Martinez alleges is widespread in the current system. The proposal resembles a measure the Senate approved last year but is opposed by the Martinez administration. It restricts immigrant licenses to two years and will cancel previously issued licenses unless those are renewed within two years. Currently, a New Mexico driver's license lasts four or eight years.
Democrats on the committee complained they were unable to negotiate a compromise because of Martinez's unwillingness to accept anything other than a repeal of the current law. They predicted nothing will be enacted this year and the issue will be back before the Legislature in 2013.
"If the current law really does pose such a dire threat to the security of this country why are we all going to vote in here and ensure that nothing is going to happen until next year? Doesn't that say to everybody here that we don't really care about the issue enough to address it," said Rep. Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat.
The governor contends that public opinion polls show a majority of New Mexicans support repeal of the license law, and Scott Darnell, a spokesman for Martinez, said "it was disappointing and stunning to hear some legislators complain about how much they regret having to stand up to special interest groups to do what their constituents are demanding."
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