Driver’s Licenses in New Mexico

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez’s Campaign to Repeal the State’s Driver’s License Law

By JOAN FRIEDLAND | January 10, 2013

New Mexico Republican Governor Susana Martinez has received national attention for criticizingRepublican anti-immigrant rhetoric. But back in New Mexico, she’s less welcoming to immigrants.

When the New Mexico legislature begins its 2013 session in January, the governor will try for the fourth time to get the state’s driver’s license law repealed. New Mexico, like the state of Washington and, as expected soon, Illinois, allows driver’s licenses to be issued regardless of immigration status. Utah issues a driver’s privilege card to immigrants who are ineligible for a regular license, regardless of their status.

Governor Martinez’s repeal efforts would lead the state in the wrong direction. The Illinois legislature’s recent bipartisan approval of licenses is based on a recognition that granting licenses regardless of immigration status is a matter of public safety and is an acknowledgement of the economic contributions and human needs of immigrants. Unlicensed drivers are untrained, untested and uninsured, which raises costs for drivers who are insured. Moreover, according to national security expert Margaret Stock, “Denying licenses to [undocumented] migrants creates a larger haystack of people who are not in any government database—but who are in the country, living and working here.”

The New Mexico governor set the stage for this year’s repeal effort with scare tactics. She argued that after January 15, 2013, New Mexico residents would need passports in order to board planes and enter federal buildings because the state’s driver’s license law does not impose the citizenship and immigration restrictions required by the REAL ID Act. That caused a mad scramble in passport applications in the last months of 2012.

But this was a false alarm. A January 15, 2013, deadline applied only to states, not individuals—and in any event was, as widely predicted, extended by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). REAL ID is unlikely to take effect fully at any time, since 25 states have passed laws or joint resolutions opposing it. DHS has determined that only13 states are in compliance with the act. Nonetheless, the New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division (MVD) website continues to report that the REAL ID Act takes effect in January 2013 and that at that time a passport will be required for domestic flights.

Even if New Mexico enacts immigration restrictions on access to driver’s licenses, however, the state would remain out of compliance with REAL ID’s benchmarks, given major deficiencies in the MVD’s operations. The governor’s focus on immigrants’ access to licenses deflects attention from the pressing need to correct real problems in the agency.

In October 2012 the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee issued a damning report about the MVD, criticizing virtually every aspect of its operations, including inadequate staffing, no formal training of staff, a lack of performance measures, and inadequate oversight of private licensing agencies—issues that have nothing to do with immigrants.

One of the report’s most alarming criticisms was that “MVD’s computer system is outdated, labeled the worst in the nation, and on the verge of collapse.” In mid-2011 the state cancelled a 2010 contract with Hewlett Packard for a new system, contending that the proposed system was deficient. Since the state didn’t request new proposals until now,  adequate technology is not within sight. According to the Albuquerque Journal, the MVD will ask the legislature for only $6 million for a system that two years ago was expected to cost $26 million.

The MVD computer system’s precarious state is a danger for all New Mexico residents. But it has created special problems for some New Mexico immigrants. New Mexico, like many states, automatically sends information to the Selective Service about young men between 18 and 26 years of age who apply for driver’s licenses. Recently, some young immigrants in Albuquerque received registration notices from the Selective Service containing a Social Security number (SSN) with all but the last four digits blocked out, although they had not provided an SSN to the MVD or to the Selective Service. Their immigration attorneys learned from the Selective Service that the MVD had provided an SSN that proved to be a “dummy” number. The MVD Director’s Office explained that when an individual applies for a license, “the SSN field should only be filled if the clerk entered an SSN. What may have happened is that the system passed a created number which typically starts with 999. I have notified the programmers about this and they are checking to ensure it does not recur.”

The mere suggestion that an immigrant has provided a false SSN to a state or federal agency can have serious legal consequences. Unsuspecting immigrants who don’t know how a false SSN turned up in their MVD and Selective Service records will be at a significant disadvantage in explaining that they were not at fault. Nonetheless, MVD did not issue any notices to affected individuals or to the public explaining their error or any recourse that individuals might have.

The governor has declared repeatedly that the New Mexico driver’s license policy leads to fraudulent claims of New Mexico residency, and offenders have been prosecuted. But fraud in the issuance of driver’s licenses is a longstanding national problem, often involving lax security or breaches by driver’s license office employees, and occurs in many states that impose citizenship and immigration restrictions.  Immigration restrictions actually encourage fraud because presentation of false documents and misconduct by driver’s license employees become the only way to obtain a license.

Given the governor’s concerns about fraud, MVD’s creation and sharing of false SSNs is particularly egregious. And New Mexico has not taken the obvious steps to address and prevent fraud, which do not require repealing the current law. For example, its antiquated computer systemcannot even detect if multiple persons use the same address. Moreover, in 2012 the governor rejected compromise legislation that would have tightened state residency and other requirements.

If the current driver’s license law is repealed, Gov. Martinez has not clarified what would replace it. She has not even agreed to support driver’s licenses for young people given temporary authorization to reside and work in the U.S. under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. According to the Albuquerque Journal, the Martinez administration is “examining” the issue of whether DACA recipients would be eligible for licenses under a new law if the current law is repealed. Her failure to say yes runs counter to the national trend, as even the majority of states with immigration restrictions have made clear that they will grant licenses toDACA recipients.

NEW MEXICO HAS the highest income gap between rich and poor in the country, the second highest poverty rate (beating only Mississippi), is close to the top in lack of health insurance, and is dead last in the country in job creation over the past three years. Governor Martinez should turn her attention to remedying these deficiencies instead of playing politics with immigrants’ access to driver’s licenses.
Joan Friedland formerly was managing attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. Currently she is a consultant to NILC. She lives in New Mexico.