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Lawmakers ready for REAL ID fix debate

Russell Contreras
The Associated Press
In this Feb. 2, file photo, immigration advocates rally at the state Capitol in Santa Fe, to protest a proposal aimed at repealing the state law that allowed immigrants in the country illegally to obtain driver's licenses.

ALBUQUERQUE — The New Mexico Legislative session is scheduled to begin Tuesday, and fixing the state's driver's licenses laws is among the most anticipated pieces of legislation lawmakers are expected to tackle.

That's because the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said last year New Mexico wouldn't get an extension on complying with tougher federal requirements under the federal REAL ID Act.

REAL ID Act requirements mandate proof of legal U.S. residency for holders who want to use state IDs to access certain federal facilities, and by 2018, board commercial flights.

New Mexico has no such requirement and allows immigrants to obtain driver's licenses regardless of legal status.

Already, White Sand Missile Range and Sandia Labs announced restrictions on accepting New Mexicodriver's licenses as a form of identification from visitors. Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, also said it will no longer accept New Mexico driver's license as a form of identification.

The moves have created uneasiness among residents and some businesses in New Mexico who worry the uncertainty could affect the state's fragile economy. It also has put pressure on the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic-led Senate to come up with a compromise during the 30-day session.

Here are some things to know:

The immigrant driver's license law

Since her election in 2010, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has tried to repeal the state law that allowsimmigrants to obtain New Mexico driver's licenses regardless of legal status. The proposal has faced stiff resistance from liberal Democrats and immigrant advocacy groups who crowd hearings and lobby to keep the law. However, a Democratic-controlled House passed repeal proposals twice while the Senate failed to take it up.

Martinez and Republicans had warned that New Mexico might not get anymore extensions under the federal REAL ID Act, but until last year few Republicans supported any alternative besides repeal.

Meanwhile, federal authorities have prosecuted a number of fraud cases involving criminal syndicates that used New Mexico's law to obtain driver's licenses for immigrant suspected of living in the country illegally but who reside in other state.

This Sept. 9, 2014, file photo shows cars waiting to enter Fort Bliss in El Paso.

The proposals

The Senate proposal, passed last session, would create a "two-tier" system for state residents who want a REAL ID compliant license and for those who don't. Those who opt out, including immigrants in the country legally, could continue to get driver's licenses without the privilege of using it to board flights and enter federal facilities.

A House version, sponsored by Rep. Paul Pacheco, D-Albuquerque, would create REAL ID compliant licensebut also grant state driving privilege cards for immigrants — even those suspected of living in the country illegally. That proposal is supported by Martinez but opposed by the Santa Fe-based, left leaning immigrantadvocacy group Somos Un Pueblo Unido who say it would create a "scarlet letter" license for immigrants.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says all noncompliant "cards must clearly state on their face (and in the machine readable zone) that it is not acceptable for official purposes and must use a unique design or color to differentiate them from compliant cards."

In this Jan. 24, 2012, file photo, immigrant advocates use an image of New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez on a mock state driver's license during a rally in Santa Fe to protest her proposal to repeal a state law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.

The fight

Somos Un Pueblo Unido is promising to bus in immigrants from around the state to lobby on behalf of the Senate proposal or any law that allows immigrants to keep licenses. In past session, they have packed rooms of committee hearings on repeal proposals.

This time, representatives from business organizations are expected to testify how the New Mexico's law is creating uncertainty, especially for companies considering relocating to the state.

Previously neutral parties also are expected to join in the discussion since federal authorities say by 2018 New Mexico's driver's licenses without a REAL ID fix won't be accepted for boarding a commercial flight.

In this Dec. 22, 2006, file photo, George Chacon, left, and his brother Josh tour the rockets on display at the White Sands Missile Range in White Sands Missile Range.

The politics

Martinez has used the Homeland Security's moves to bash Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez for not "fixing" the problem by supporting her repeal attempts.

Sanchez has countered by saying the Republican governor "lies" and "spreads fear" by suggesting residents needed to go out and get U.S. Passports to travel.

The two sides rarely talk to each other and largely communicate through surrogates.

However, Sanchez said he is open to a compromise and promised that New Mexico lawmakers would pass a REAL ID compliant law this session.

This Sept. 9, 2014 file photo a soldier moves a traffic cone as cars wait to enter Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. Fort Bliss has announced it will no longer accept New Mexico driver's license as a form of identification from visitors.