SANTA FE — Gone are the days when New Mexico and Washington were the only states to issue driver's licenses to immigrants in the country illegally.
Last week, the governors of Oregon and Maryland signed bills that will allow state residents without proof of immigration status to obtain driver's licenses. Illinois authorized a driver's license law for illegal immigrants earlier this year.
Colorado legislators on Wednesday approved a similar bill, though no Republicans voted for it. Colorado's governor, Democrat John Hickenlooper, has not said whether he will sign the bill into law.
Rhode Island, Connecticut and Washington, D.C., are considering expanding their driver's license laws to include those without proof of immigration status.
Until the wave of recent changes, New Mexico and Washington state stood alone by granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Utah issues driving privilege cards to people without documentation of immigration status.
Unlike the driver's licenses issued in New Mexico, Utah privilege cards are not allowed to be used as identification to board an airplane or to gain access to a secure government building, such as a federal courthouse.
The laws in New Mexico and Washington state have been controversial in the last couple of years, generating repeal attempts.
State Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, predicted that his repeal bill would clear the Legislature last winter. He pushed it with the backing of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, but it did not win approval in either the House of Representatives or the Senate.
Pacheco called his bill a compromise because it would have allowed for younger immigrants with a designated lawful presence in America to obtain temporary driver's licenses. Many Democrats, led by Rep. Miguel Garcia of Albuquerque and House Speaker Ken Martinez of Grants, fought hard to block Pacheco's bill in favor of keeping the existing licensing law.
New Mexico Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, introduced a bill to counter Pacheco's. It would have provided two-year licenses to foreign nationals without proof of immigration status. Many New Mexico licenses are good for four or eight years.
But when Pacheco's bill was bottled up by House committees, Campos did not press for his proposal to receive hearings. In the end, both bills died.
So did a proposal by Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, that was similar to what Pacheco proposed.
Since 2003, New Mexico has licensed illegal immigrants who have proof of state residency.
The Rev. Holly Beaumont of Interfaith Worker Justice-New Mexico said the law has worked well, helping people drive to their jobs, support their families and pay their taxes. No change is necessary, she said.
Gov. Martinez disagrees. She described the licensing law as dangerous and said it invited fraud because illegal immigrants living elsewhere try to obtain New Mexico licenses.
Lately, many politicians in other states have adopted a stand similar to that of state Rep. Antonio Maestas, D-Albuquerque. Maestas says that granting driver's licenses to those without documentation of immigration status actually improves public safety.
People with driver's licenses have to pass tests demonstrating they know the rules of the road, and they are listed in police databases, Maestas said.
In Oregon, no proof of immigration status was required to get a driver's license until 2008. Many Oregon lawmakers said illegal immigrants began driving without auto insurance after that. They could not get insurance without a driver's license.
Most Oregon legislators decided the roads would be safer with licensed motorists who pass driving tests and can buy auto insurance.
Six Republicans joined Democrats in the Oregon Senate in voting for the driver's license law, enabling it to pass with ease, 20-7. One Republican senator even co-sponsored the bill.
The Oregon law provides for licenses good for four years, but it contains restrictions preventing them from being used as identification to board a plane.
Even so, the law remains controversial. Two Republican legislators say they will petition for a ballot issue in hopes that Oregon voters would overturn it.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley last week signed a licensing law similar to Oregon's. Numerous Republican legislators in Maryland fought the measure, saying it merely created an incentive for illegal immigrants to come to the state.
New Mexico state Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, has been among the leading critics of licensing illegal immigrants.
She said the system had not increased the number of insured motorists, and she feared that the law would devalue New Mexico licenses to the point that they will not be considered valid identification. Ezzell said she feared that someday New Mexico residents would need a passport to board a plane for domestic flights.
Marcela Diaz, executive director of the immigrant group Somos Un Pueblo Unido, said the fact that more states are licensing undocumented immigrants is recognition of their importance to the business world.
Diaz says immigrants are critical to numerous New Mexico industries, including dairy and chile farms and oil and gas exploration.
"Washington and New Mexico opened the way for other states to look at this issue in a more pragmatic way," she said.
But Demesia Padilla, Gov. Martinez's cabinet secretary overseeing the state Motor Vehicle Division, told legislators that fraud was rampant because of the driver's license law.
Padilla said con artists forge documents in hopes of convincing workers in MVD field offices that they live in New Mexico. She says the law creates burdens on her staff and and combating fraud is time consuming.
Milan Simonich, Santa Fe bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at email@example.com or 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.