Compromise Ends New Mexico's Yearslong Battle on Immigrant Licenses

The deal between the governor and lawmakers makes the state's driver's licenses compliant with federal law and more secure but also lets unauthorized immigrants drive legally.
by | February 17, 2016
Immigrant advocates use an image of New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez on a mock state driver's license. (AP/Russell Contreras)

Ever since taking office in one of the first states to let unauthorized immigrants get driver's licenses, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has battled lawmakers to reverse that policy. After five years of fighting, the two sides finally struck a compromise on Monday.

The deal is a testament to both the governor’s efforts and to pressure from the federal government for states to comply with the once-divisive Real ID Act.

The Real ID Act mandates that states implement new technologies and processes to make methods of identification more secure. The law was enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but states have been slow to adopt it. In states that fail to comply, residents won't be allowed to use their driver's licenses to board commercial flights starting two years from now. New Mexico had been on a short list of states (along with Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Washington) not on track to meet that federal deadline.

The reasons for states' noncompliance with Real ID vary. In New Mexico, the culprit has been the state's practice since 2003 of letting unauthorized immigrants obtain licenses.

The bill awaiting Martinez’s signature lets both the Republican governor and advocates for immigrants claim victory. Unauthorized immigrants and others without Social Security numbers will no longer be able to get standard New Mexico licenses, but they can still qualify for a different type of document -- one that will let them drive, but can't be used as identification.

The estimated 90,000 unauthorized immigrants who currently have licenses will automatically retain the right to drive under the new legislation, but new applicants must submit fingerprints and pass a criminal background check. That information cannot, however, be shared with federal immigration agencies.

Meanwhile, standard New Mexico licenses will get a security upgrade and the state will issue Real ID-compliant licenses within six months.

As one of the first states that explicitly allows undocumented immigrants to drive, New Mexico’s approach was rare. States that later granted driving rights to unauthorized immigrants often used the two-document approach that New Mexico is adopting.

“Finally,” Martinez wrote on her Facebook page after the bill passed, “New Mexico will stop giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants!" Undocumented immigrants will still have the right to drive in New Mexico, but they won't be able to get a traditional driver's license.

“For five long years, I have fought hard to do what the people of New Mexico have demanded -- to end this dangerous law that made our state a magnet for illegal immigrants from all over the world," Martinez wrote. "Tonight, we accomplished that goal."

Somos Un Pueblo Unido, an advocacy group supporting immigrant rights, offered a starkly different take on the vote.

"Today, the legislature voted overwhelmingly to keep our families licensed and New Mexico’s roads safe,” the group wrote in a statement. “The governor’s ‘my way or the highway’ approach did not work. We are proud that legislators continued to stand up to her anti-immigrant agenda and successfully coalesced around a non-discriminatory, practical and compassionate approach.”

Stumbling blocks other than immigrant status have kept states from complying with the Real ID Act.

For example, Illinois' troubles stem largely from the fact that it needs between $50 million and $60 million to buy equipment for records maintenance. The state also has to revamp its process for making licenses because of the way Real ID requires states to handle photos, said David Druker, a spokesman for the Illinois secretary of state’s office. Securing that money is easier said than done, because of a dispute that has left the state without a budget for the last eight months.

In Minnesota and Missouri, legislators voted years ago to block their states from obeying the Real ID law. That was a common move back when Real ID first passed Congress, with both conservative and liberal groups worried about the law’s effects on civil liberties. State officials also objected to the large unfunded mandate.

The Washington State Department of Licensing faces restrictions under that state's laws, and it also lets unauthorized immigrants qualify for standard driver's licenses. (Washington, does, however, offer an enhanced license that is Real ID-compliant.)

More than a decade after Congress passed Real ID, 22 states have fully complied with the law, while another 23 have been granted extensions to do so by the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has already started requiring Real ID-compliant licenses for entering military bases, federal buildings and nuclear power plants. It announced last month that air passengers with licenses from states that don’t comply with Real ID or haven't been granted an extension will have to provide other forms of ID, such as a passport, starting in January 2018.