SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — First-time driver’s licenses issued to immigrants in the country illegally plunged by nearly a third in the past year despite no change in New Mexico’s policy of granting driving privileges, records show.
The dramatic decline comes after Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who’s up for re-election, pushed unsuccessfully for four years to scrap the state’s law allowing driver’s licenses to immigrants, regardless of their immigration status.
According to a review of state records by The Associated Press, there was a 31 percent decline in first-time licenses issued to foreign nationals from 2012 and 2013. Licenses granted during the first quarter of this year dropped by nearly a third compared to the same period last year.
There’s no clear explanation for the recent trend, although licenses have been declining since Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson left office at the end of 2010. He signed the license law in 2003.
Martinez said her administration hasn’t changed its policies for scrutinizing license applications in the past year. However, she contends the decline is attributable to the state’s willingness to prosecute individuals who fraudulently try to obtain licenses.
“The law was meant for people who live here. When you are brought in from another country to commit a crime here, I think the word is getting out we are not going to take it,” Martinez said in an interview Tuesday.
The state has prosecuted what it considers organized fraud rings that help immigrants obtain a license in New Mexico. Charges were brought in April against two immigrants living in New York who tried to obtain licenses in New Mexico after responding to a New York newspaper advertisement and paying $1,500 each to obtain documents needed for their applications.
Immigrant rights activist Marcela Diaz dismisses that a fraud crackdown is behind the license decline and instead sees the state’s weak economy as the reason.
“If you don’t have a job why would you move to New Mexico,” said Diaz, executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a Santa Fe-based group that opposes efforts to stop licenses for immigrants.
Washington state and New Mexico have long had the broadest licensing laws in the nation, which allow immigrants and anyone else without a Social Security number to obtain the same driver’s license as a U.S. citizen.
But New Mexico’s license drop is far steeper than in Washington, which had a 7 percent decline in licenses granted last year to people without a Social Security number, according to records from the state’s Department of Licensing.
Eleven states and the District of Columbia have recently enacted laws to extend driving privileges to immigrants in the country illegally, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But most of the new state laws weren’t in effect last year.
In New Mexico, 5,160 new foreign national licenses were granted in 2013, down from 7,469 in 2012. License renewals for immigrants have remained relatively stable — declining only 1 percent last year.
Martinez contends the license system should be scrapped because it’s a security risk with out-of-state immigrants coming to New Mexico to seek a license by falsely claiming they are residents. More than 100,000 licenses have been issued to foreign nationals since 2003.
But the governor’s efforts have failed in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Supporters contend the law improves public safety by having immigrant motorists in the country illegally obtain insurance and adding them to the government’s license database. Advocates also contend those immigrants need to be able to legally drive to jobs and take their children to school.