Bucking US trend, New Mexico House poised to pass bill repealing migrant driver's license law

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SANTA FE, New Mexico — Alejandro Altamirano from Durango, Mexico, has called New Mexico home for a dozen years, and it's where his two U.S.-born daughters are being raised. But the 36-year-old dairy farmworker fears he will be forced into the shadows if he loses his driver's license.

For years, New Mexico led in handing out driver's licenses to people suspected of being in the country illegally. Now, legislation to stop the practice is gaining traction despite a trend sweeping through several states to offer driving privileges to everyone regardless of their status.

Fresh off a political power shift, the Republican-led House of Representatives is poised to pass a measure repealing a 2003 law that made New Mexico one of the first states to offer licenses to immigrants regardless of status. However, the momentum may not matter since Senate Democrats have vowed to fight the legislation.

The battle comes in a state with the nation's highest percentage of Latinos and the only Latina governor.

Proponents of the bill say polling indicates most New Mexicans want to reverse course and repeal the law. They argue it would help prevent fraud and bring the state into compliance with federal identification requirements.

Those who want to keep the law argue that working families stand to get hurt if it's repealed. They say other states that dole out licenses are not running afoul of federal laws.

California this year began issuing driver's licenses to immigrants who are in the country illegally, bringing the number of states that do so to 10. California expects 1.4 million people to apply for the licenses in the next three years.

"It's a product of many years and the need for driver's licenses," said Tanya Broder, senior staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles. "From a policy perspective, it made sense that all the drivers were tested and licensed and insured and accountable for their driving records."

Opponents say New Mexico has become a haven for those seeking to fraudulently obtain driver's licenses.

"These fraud operations involve the trafficking of humans to our state for the purpose of committing crimes; and with no intention to live here, they snatch up our license to take elsewhere, to places unknown and for purposes unknown," said Mike Lonergan, spokesman for Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

Martinez, the nation's only Latina governor and a rising figure in the Republican Party, has been pushing to repeal the driver's license law since she was first elected in 2010.

The governor and others have said it has failed to drive down the rate of uninsured motorists as intended.

"We tried the experiment, and it didn't work," said Rep. William "Bill" Rehm, R-Albuquerque. He says other states giving driver's licenses to immigrants also will be out of compliance with federal law.

Democrats have blocked the repeal so far and question the Martinez administration's efforts.

"They campaigned on the repeal, and they're stuck fighting for repeal," said Rep. Antonio Maestas, D-Albuquerque. "They painted themselves in a political corner."

Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, whose repeal legislation is moving through the House, said a vast majority of New Mexicans want this "dangerous law off the books."

His supporters point to a 2014 Albuquerque Journal poll saying 75 percent in the state opposed the law. Detractors point to other polls, saying a majority of Hispanic residents in New Mexico support giving licenses to people regardless of status.

No studies show these drivers are involved in fraud or terrorist activity, said Matt Barreto, co-founder of the Seattle-based Latino Decisions polling and research firm.

"You've got Republicans in the (New Mexico) Legislature in their largest numbers in a very long time; it's a partisan issue plain and simple," said Barreto, also a UCLA political science and Chicano studies professor.

Meanwhile, Altamirano waits, hoping he can keep his driver's license. Otherwise, it could mean losing his job, his home and everything he has worked toward.

"I will live with more fear, and especially more fear of police when I drive," he said.

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