New Mexico, Utah and Washington are the only three states that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver's license.
New Mexico has been battling with this issue for the past year, and will do so again with the upcoming legislative session that begins next week.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks many states began to change their driver's license policies, because driver's licenses are official documents that allow people to board airplanes, among other things.
Gov. Susana Martinez campaigned on the promise that she would stop illegal immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses, and during the upcoming Legislature she will reintroduce such a bill. Supporters of the bill argue that only legal immigrants and U.S. citizens should carry a state driver's license. They also say that New Mexico is becoming a magnet for immigrants all over the U.S. who want to obtain a license.
However, the "risk factor" of allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver's license is only one side of the story.
In the 21st century driving has evolved from a privilege to a necessity. Whether it's driving to school, work or picking up groceries, a car seems to be the epicenter of travel. At least that's that reality for first-year college student Erick Avila. Not having a driver's license means his college education could be in jeopardy, he said.
"If the bill were to pass, I would not be able to go to the college I'm attending because I live in Santa Fe and I drive all the way to Española for school," said Avila, a student at Northern New Mexico College. But he is not alone, Avila said. He knows others who would be affected by the bill.
"I would stop it. And I know others that would want to stop it also. There are so many people that would be affected by this bill if it would be passed."
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, about 9 percent of the 2 million New Mexico residents are foreign born. The census data does not indicate how many of those foreign nationals are illegal. Data from the state Motor Vehicle Division indicate that more than 80,000 foreign nationals in New Mexico hold a state driver's license.
Last summer, Gov. Martinez launched a license-verification program that sent out 10,000 letters to random drivers from across the state who had applied for a driver's license with foreign documents. The goal of this verification program was to identify illegal immigrants who were not New Mexico residents or who had obtained the license without sufficient documentation.
For Allen Sanchez, executive director for the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, the public safety of all residents is an overlooked factor.
"We are not going to become a Gestapo state and round up all of the immigrants and send them home. Instead, we need to integrate them into our society," Sanchez said. "We don't want to oppose any ideas, instead we want to propose new ideas and compromise."
One such proposal during the last Legislature — which countered Martinez's proposal to kill the 2003 law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain a license — indicated that if immigrants wanted to apply for a driver's license, they needed to prove they had resided in New Mexico for at least six consecutive months. They also would have to provide fingerprints, and had to have paid taxes, Sanchez said. The 2011 Legislature ended before the bill was heard.
The New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops sent out a news release a few weeks ago, indicating that a local study showed that 64 percent of New Mexico voters supported the extra steps immigrants would have to take in order to receive a driver's license. The news release also stated that only 10 percent of voters statewide cited driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants as their most important concern.
Sanchez said that immigrants with driver's licenses are more likely to call the police in case of an accident and are less likely to flee the scene of an accident.
"A driver's license means you have taken a test to get that license, and if that is taken away, more people will be driving without the experience. The church doesn't want these immigrants to enter the country illegally, but they are already a part of our society and they're taking their children to school every day,"
Austin Tyra is a sophomore at Career Academy at Larragoite. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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