NM GOP fails to force immigrant license debate

March 6, 2013 • State News

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Allies of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez narrowly failed Wednesday in trying to revive legislation to stop New Mexico from issuing driver’s licenses to most illegal immigrants.

A Martinez-backed license proposal has been bottled up in a House committee by majority Democrats, most likely dooming the bill as time runs out in the legislative session. Lawmakers will adjourn in 10 days and similar license legislation has stalled in the Senate.

Republicans — aided by a handful of Democrats — tried a rarely successful procedural move to bypass three House committees assigned to review the bill. That would have advanced the measure to the 70-member House for debate and a vote, with a strong chance that it could pass as occurred the past two years.

The effort fell one vote short, but there’s still a possibility the bill could reach the House [auth] before the Legislature ends. Even if that happens, the measure would face problems in the Senate, which has turned down license restrictions since Martinez took office in 2011.

Democratic Rep. Brian Egolf of Santa Fe described the procedural maneuvering as a “political game” by the governor’s supporters.

“Once again, we’re attempting to divert this body’s attention to an issue that is not at the forefront of the most pressing needs of this state,” said Rep. Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat.

New Mexico and Washington state allow illegal immigrants to obtain the same driver’s license as a U.S. citizen. Utah grants a special driving permit to immigrants that can’t be used for identification.

House GOP Whip Nate Gentry of Albuquerque said the House should debate the license measure because there’s support among New Mexico voters for ending licenses for illegal immigrants — a policy that Martinez made a centerpiece of her campaign in 2010.

The latest legislation, he said, is less restrictive than what the House has approved the past two years.

“I think the legislation has merit. It’s a good compromise and every attempt that we’ve made to address this issue has failed,” Gentry said.

The measure would provide temporary driver’s licenses to younger immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and are covered by a federal policy deferring deportation. However, no licenses would be issued to other immigrants who illegally came to the country.

Besides those temporary licenses for some immigrants, the legislation would provide for a new driver’s license for state residents to comply with the federal Real ID Act, which would permit it to be used as identification in the future to board airliners.

Democrats contend there’s no compromise in the legislation, however. The immigrant youth covered by the federal policy are considered to be lawfully in the country, can obtain work permits and receive Social Security numbers, which would entitle them to a traditional driver’s license in New Mexico and many other states.

The House agreed on 36-34 votes to move the bill around two committees but deadlocked 35-35 on steering it around the final committee and to the House.

The series of votes left the license measure pending in the Appropriations and Finance Committee, where Democrats hold a 10-8 edge in membership. However, two Democrats on the panel voted last year for a bill to end licenses for illegal immigrants.

After a similar parliamentary move in 2011, the House voted to end licenses for illegal immigrants. That measure died in the Senate, which blocked a similar license proposal last year.

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