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Immigrant Driver's Licenses A Hot Topic In New Mexico

A mock driver's license plate immigrant advocates use to defend a New Mexico law that allows undocumented immigrants to get a driver's license.
Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe
New Mexico's driver's licenses don't comply with federally mandated REAL ID standards which require applicants show proof of legal U.S. residency.

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Immigrant Driver's Licenses A Hot Topic In New Mexico

Immigrant Driver's Licenses A Hot Topic In New Mexico

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe

A mock driver's license plate immigrant advocates use to defend a New Mexico law that allows undocumented immigrants to get a driver's license.

PORTALES, N.M. -- When New Mexico’s 60-day legislative session opens next week, one topic sure to ignite fierce debate for the third straight year is driver's licenses.

Governor Susana Martinez wants to repeal a 2003 law that allows illegal immigrants to get a driver's license. Supporters claim the law invites fraud into the state and threatens public safety.

At a factory in Portales, N.M., a shower of raw peanuts fall into a vertical vent on their way to be roasted and packaged. This city of some 17,000 in far eastern New Mexico is known for its peanut products and dairy farms. Both industries rely on a predominately Latino workforce. Most of that workforce relies on a New Mexico driver's license to get to work. That includes workers who are here illegally.

For those who are undocumented and unlicensed in Eastern New Mexico, the woman to know is Rosa Lopez. She's a proud community organizer unafraid to speak her mind.

"I work with the community helping get them driver's licenses," Lopez said. "I help a lot of of people, three or four people a day."

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe

A worker sorts through roasted peanuts at one of the factories in Portales, N.M. Many immigrants in this area work in the peanut and dairy industry.

Lopez said sometimes immigrants get the cold shoulder at the Motor Vehicle Division. She accompanies them and guides them through the application process. All they need is an ID from their home country, like a passport, and proof that they live in New Mexico. They also have to pass a driving test.

Yvonne Resendez is a young undocumented mother from Mexico who works as a hotel housekeeper. She worries about getting deported and being separated from her son, who is a U.S. citizen.

But this week, she picked up her first driver's license at the MVD. Having it brings a certain sense of security.

"Before I was on foot or asking for rides," she said. "Now I can take my son to school, go to work and identify myself."

A driver's license is a privilege of tremendous value to the millions of undocumented immigrants nationwide. But that rare privilege has undeniably brought trouble to New Mexico, as witnessed by Matt Chandler, the 9th Judicial District Attorney for New Mexico.

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe

Rosa Lopez is a community organizer in Eastern New Mexico who helps immigrants apply for driver's licenses.

"There's individuals out there that will capitalize on foreign nationals that are wanting to take advantage of the law that we have here in New Mexico," he said.

Last year state police busted an alleged fraud ring in Portales. They charged nine people in a scheme to provide driver's licenses to at least 54 immigrants who lived out of state.

The evidence of fraud is stacked in manila folders at the DA’s office. Each is fat with hundreds of documents from titles to vehicles sitting in junkyards, fake utility bills and forged signatures on false rental agreements.

"There are hundreds of people that are gathering driver's licenses that we do not know who they are or where they live or where they are going," Chandler said. "And it leaves us in law enforcement to only be able to speculate about what their intent is."

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe

Investigator Terry Mulligan with the 9th Judicial District of New Mexico reviews files in a case involving driver's license fraud.

Some of those acquiring driver's licenses fraudulently may want them to simply get around, but law enforcement worry about people who might want them for criminal purposes. Once a fraudulently acquired license is issued it's hard to track the person down because most of the information they gave is false.

Across New Mexico, there are at least 10 other cases similar to the one in Portales in various stages of the judicial system. Authorities will cancel all the licenses issued as part of the Portales case.

Elsewhere in the country, New Mexico is known as the go-to place for driver's licenses, said Charles Kuck, an immigration attorney in Georgia.

His clients tell him there is a network of people who charge thousands to arrange trips to New Mexico for immigrants who want a driver's license.

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe

Police say these two rental homes in central Portales, N.M. were used in a scheme to obtain driver's licenses for out-of-state immigrants.

"People are so desperate they will believe what they want to exist, exists," Kuck said. "It is emblematic of the desperation caused by a broken immigration system."

For residents of Georgia, an out-of-state license is only good for 30 days after the license-holder moves into the state. Also state law in Georgia no longer recognizes New Mexico driver's licenses as a valid form of ID.

"Virtually every trooper and officer in Georgia knows if you drive with a New Mexico license you're probably not from New Mexico," Kuck said.

Lawmakers in Santa Fe have argued countless hours on the subject of driver's licenses in the last two years. Some have offered a compromise bill that toughens fraud penalties, but New Mexico's governor says she'll refuse anything short of repeal.

Meanwhile community activists like Rosa Lopez say they'll keep fighting.

"We will be taking advantage of the driver's license until the minute you say it's over with, because we need them," Lopez said.

Read More: Immigration, Safety At Issue In License Debate

New Mexico is one the few states where illegal immigrants can get a driver's license. Washington and Utah are two others. This month Illinois became the fourth.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was reported in collaboration with New Mexico In Depth, online at nmindepth.com.