- Associated Press - Friday, May 27, 2016

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The number of immigrants seeking driver’s licenses in New Mexico surged during the first three months of the year as lawmakers debated changes to a long-contested policy that allowed for those living in the country illegally to obtain licenses, according to a review by The Associated Press.

Data obtained through a records request showed 3,568 licenses were issued to foreign nationals from January to March. That’s just shy of the 4,026 licenses granted to foreign nationals for all of 2015.

State officials believe the spike stems from immigrants in the country illegally wanting to get New Mexico licenses before state lawmakers revised the law.

Taxation and Revenue Department Secretary Demesia Padilla she’s not surprised by jump and had warned state lawmakers that officials would see a jump during the debate to change the law. “This is a validation of something we’ve been saying all along,” Padilla said.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez signed legislation in March that allows immigrants in the U.S. illegally to obtain only driver’s authorization cards after submitting fingerprints. Those who already had driver’s licenses can still get them renewed under the revision.

Officials don’t know how many of the licenses went to immigrants in the country illegally because applicants aren’t required to submit information on immigration status.

The revision came after years of pressure from Martinez, who sought to repeal the law over concerns of fraud. Democrats repeatedly put up roadblocks until last year when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced it wouldn’t give the state an extension on tougher federal identification mandates.

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 had no such requirement under the previous policy.

The move by Homeland Security sparked uncertainty around the state after military bases said they would stop accepting New Mexico driver’s licenses for entry.

Immigrant rights groups and Democrats held rallies and lobbied lawmakers during the 2016 session to prevent any repeal legislation from getting to the governor’s desk. A compromise was eventually reached.

Padilla said until the U.S Department of Homeland Security gives a final approval on the new state revision, state officials will have to keep issuing driver’s licenses to immigrants living in the country illegally.

She said she didn’t know when federal authorities will make a final decision. “It can’t happen soon enough,” Padilla said.

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

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