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New Mexico Democrats, governor clash over licenses for illegals

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New Mexico lawmakers are caught in a jam over whether to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and, like a trip to the motor vehicle department, this fight could take awhile.

Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican who took office this year, has proposed overturning a 2003 law that allows undocumented foreign nationals to obtain state-issued driver's licenses. It is one of three such state laws in the country.

A former prosecutor, Mrs. Martinez has cast the issue as a matter of public safety and national security after a string of arrests involving criminal licensing rings, but she has hit a wall with state Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature.

House Speaker Ben Lujan has said that redistricting remains the top priority for the special session that convened this month and that all other issues take a back seat until a new congressional map is approved.

The House and Senate cleared proposals involving driver's licenses during the regular session, but a conference committee failed to resolve the differences between the competing bills.

With the special session scheduled to expire in early October, political observers say, the governor's chances of reforming the driver's license law this year appear increasingly bleak.

"The conventional wisdom is that the outright repeal failed in the regular session and it's not going to pass this time," said longtime New Mexico political analyst and blogger Joe Monahan. "The governor even said that there's no consensus on the issue, which is code for you don't have the votes."

Still, Mrs. Martinez is not expected to abandon the fight anytime soon. She campaigned hard on the issue in 2010, and polls show that more than 70 percent of New Mexicans oppose driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.

"This has been the big, dominant issue of her governorship so far," said Mr. Monahan. "The regular session starts up in January, and chances are that's when she'll try to take a third bite at the apple."

Utah and Washington are the only other states that issue licenses without proof of citizenship or residency. The Utah law is stricter than New Mexico's, stipulating that the driver's permit cannot be used as government identification.

The rationale behind the New Mexico legislation, signed by Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, was that it would improve safety by requiring illegal immigrants to take a driving test. The law also was designed to protect other drivers by requiring the license holders to purchase auto insurance.

Critics say those good intentions haven't panned out. A study by New Mexico State University found that the state is second in the nation in terms of uninsured drivers at 25.7 percent, a figure that has changed little since the law was enacted.

"The reality is [illegal immigrants] have auto insurance for a month, and then they drop the insurance," said Patricia Morlen, a board member of the Albuquerque Tea Party, which supports the governor's repeal efforts.

The unintended consequence has been an eruption in criminal rings assisting illegal immigrants in obtaining New Mexico driver's licenses. In the past year, the state has indicted members of at least seven operations on fraud charges.

The indictments typically involve a trafficking ring that flies illegal immigrants into New Mexico, leases them temporary apartments, buys them insurance and makes appointments for them to take the state driver's test.

Using the New Mexico licenses, the illegals are able to obtain licenses in their home states.

The traffickers typically charge thousands of dollars per person, and their customers come from around the globe.

"The parade of human traffickers gouging immigrants for thousands of dollars apiece to get them to a New Mexico MVD office reads like a game of 'Carmen Sandiego,' with origin points including Brazil, China, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Poland and Russia," the Albuquerque Journal said in an editorial supporting the repeal.

The law's advocates insist that the fraud claims are exaggerated and that the governor is exploiting a minor problem in order to win support from tea party and Republican voters. Without those licenses, some immigrants will be stranded without a means of getting to work.

"There are 80,000 people who use this to drive to work every day," said Cristina Parker, a spokeswoman for the Border Network for Human Rights. "The governor is doing this just to rally the base. There is not a real fraud issue going on here."

To find out how pervasive the problem is, the state Tax and Revenue Department sent letters to 10,000 randomly selected foreign nationals who had received New Mexico driver's licenses, asking them to verify in person that they still live in the state.

Of those 10,000 letters, more than 3,200 came back marked "undeliverable." One arrived at a local television station. Others were sent to nonexistent addresses. Some went to the homes of legal residents who said they had lived at those houses "for decades," said Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell.

About 2,600 people turned up for their appointments with the state, and 1,316 of them were able to verify their listed addresses. The rest are still pending, he said.

"We have a law in New Mexico that affects public safety not only in New Mexico, but in every state," said Mr. Darnell. "What are they doing with the license? We don't know. Where are they going with these licenses? We don't know."

A state judge issued a restraining order on the letter-writing investigation Aug. 31 in response to a lawsuit filed by four Democratic lawmakers, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and others, who argued that the program represented a civil rights violation.

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