- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - With just days left in the New Mexico Legislative session, the last Senate committee on Friday passed a revamped New Mexico identification bill with an immigrant fingerprint provision sought by House Republicans.

The Senate Finance Committee voted unanimously to add the provision to the REAL ID bill with tough background checks despite opposition from immigrant advocacy groups.

The revamped bill would require immigrants in the country illegally to submit fingerprints before getting new state driving authorization cards. Those fingerprints would be given to the FBI for background checks.

However, immigrants in the country illegally who currently have New Mexico driver’s licenses would be exempted from the fingerprint requirements.

Under the proposal, residents could apply for REAL ID compliant licenses or just driving authorization cards. The bill would allow immigrants to obtain the driving cards.

The REAL ID Act requires proof of legal U.S. residency for those who want to use state identification to access certain areas of federal facilities. New Mexico has no such requirement and allows immigrants to get state driver’s licenses regardless of legal status.

State lawmakers have been under immense pressure to pass a REAL ID compliant law ever since the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced last year that New Mexico wouldn’t get an extension from the tougher REAL ID requirements. After that announcement, some military installations, such as White Sands Missile Range, stopped accepting state driver’s licenses for entrance.

Before the vote, Senate Democrats and House Republicans had been at odds over how to revise the immigrant driver’s license law. In recent days, the dispute centered over requiring immigrant fingerprints - something Gov. Susana Martinez said needed to be in the bill to combat fraud.

“We’re getting there,” Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, the bill’s original sponsor, said after the vote.

The bill now goes before the full Senate.

“We have worked for five years to do the work that New Mexicans have asked us to do, and tonight we are one step closer to ending the dangerous law that gives driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants,” Martinez said. “I support this bill in its current form, and call on lawmakers in both chambers to do what the people have asked us. Let’s pass this bill.”

Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a Santa Fe-based immigrant advocacy group, however, said the bill was a victory for immigrant families despite the fingerprint clause.

“The governor lost her five-year battle to take away licenses from immigrants,” the group’s executive director Marcela Diaz said. “Ninety-thousand immigrants will still be able to legally drive in New Mexico, so we consider this a huge win.”

The number of licenses given to foreign nationals last year plunged about 73 percent compared with the peak in 2010, according to state documents obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request. The numbers have been steadily decreasing since more than 15,000 were issued that year. The state gave out 4,026 in 2015, documents said.

There’s no clear explanation for the decrease.

State officials do not know how many licenses went to immigrants living in the U.S. illegally because applicants aren’t required to submit information on immigration status. Some could have legal residency.

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Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/russell-contreras

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