Court asked to stop immigrant license checks in NM

August 25, 2011 - 12:15 AM
Immigrant Licenses Lawsuit

David Urias, with Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Ives & Duncan law firm, speaks during a news conference outside the State Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M., on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011. Four state legislators and a Silver City woman asked a judge Wednesday to stop Gov. Susana Martinez's administration from trying to verify whether immigrants who received a driver's license in New Mexico still live in the state. (AP Photo/The Santa Fe New Mexican, Luis Sánchez Saturno)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Four state legislators and a Silver City woman asked a judge Wednesday to stop Gov. Susana Martinez's administration from trying to verify whether immigrants who received a driver's license in New Mexico still live in the state.

An Albuquerque law firm and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a lawsuit in state District Court in Santa Fe on behalf of the Democratic lawmakers and the Hispanic woman.

The suit seeks to block a state agency from checking a random sample of 10,000 license holders who are foreign nationals to determine their residency.

New Mexico is one of only three states — the others are Washington and Utah — where an illegal immigrant can get a driver's license because no proof of citizenship is required. However, Utah's permits cannot be used as government ID cards.

Martinez wants the Legislature to end New Mexico's policy of granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. She and other critics contend it jeopardizes public safety and attracts illegal immigrants who fraudulently claim to live in the state only to get ID cards that make it easier to stay in the country.

The Republican governor in July announced the residency verification plan — the administration's latest effort to focus attention on the state's politically charged license policy.

Under the plan, New Mexico sent notices to people that they must schedule an in-person appointment and bring documents, such as a utility bill or lease agreement, to prove they live in the state. The administration plans to cancel licenses of people who no longer are New Mexico residents.

The lawsuit contends the governor's license certification program is illegal because it singles out foreign nationals for unfair treatment, violating equal protection provisions of the state and federal constitutions. The lawsuit said the administration also lacks the power to order the checks because the program wasn't authorized by the Legislature and it effectively requires some people to reapply for a driver's license.

"The program is unconstitutional because it unfairly targets certain Latinos in New Mexico and places a higher burden on them beyond what the law requires of other residents," said Martha Gomez, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell said the suit attempts to stop an effort by the state to confront identity theft and fraud.

"This out-of-state group may believe that New Mexicans do not have a right to know who is residing within their borders, and as such, they may not have a problem trying to protect the illegal immigrants who have come to New Mexico from throughout the country to get our driver's license and leave," Darnell said in a statement. "But New Mexicans have a decidedly different point of view, and so does Gov. Martinez."

Martinez, who took office in January, vowed during her gubernatorial campaign to end the state's licensing policy enacted during former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson's administration.

The governor's license repeal proposal failed earlier this year in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Opponents said the move to end immigrant licenses was politically motivated and targeted Mexican immigrants. Martinez plans to ask the Legislature to revisit the issue during a special session that starts next month.

Under a 2003 law, more than 80,000 driver's licenses have gone to foreign nationals. The state says it doesn't know how many of those went to illegal immigrants because it doesn't ask the immigration status of license applicants.

Democratic Rep. Miguel Garcia of Albuquerque helped bring the lawsuit and was a main sponsor of the 2003 license legislation. He said the law provides an opportunity for "our immigrant population to come out of the shadows and become a participatory member of our society."

Garcia and other supporters say the licensing law has improved public safety by having immigrants get insurance for their vehicles, and has lessened immigrant fears about reporting crimes and cooperating with police.

Also bringing the lawsuit are Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan; Sens. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, and Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque; and Morales' sister-in-law Marisela Morales, a legal permanent U.S. resident who has lived in the country for 16 years.

Immigrant applicants for a New Mexico driver's license don't need a Social Security number as part of their identification. Instead, they can submit a taxpayer identification number issued by the federal government along with other identification, such as a Mexican Consulate-issued ID card known as a matricula consular.

Slightly more than 1,000 foreign national license holders have had their licenses recertified so far, according to the governor's office. About 2,500 appointments have been scheduled. Of the 10,000 letters sent out, about 31 percent have been returned as undeliverable for some reason, including that there is no forwarding address for an individual.

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