New Mexico REAL ID debate moves to Senate

Russell Contreras
The Associated Press
Rep. Miguel Garcia speaks on the House floor about a Republican-backed bill aimed at putting New Mexico in compliance with the federal REAL ID Act at the state Capitol in Santa Fe on Wednesday. The REAL ID Act requires proof of legal U.S. residency for those who want to use state identification to access certain areas of federal facilities.

SANTA FE — New Mexico Democrats say a GOP plan to get the state in compliance with the federal REAL ID Act will force residents to turn over personal information to a federal database.

Republicans say that’s false and counter that a Democratic proposal to create a two-tier system still won’t put New Mexico in compliance. Democrats deny that charge.

The REAL ID Act requires proof of legal U.S. residency for those who want to use state identification to access certain areas of federal facilities. New Mexico has no such requirement and allows immigrants to get state driver’s licenses regardless of legal status.

As the partisan debate on making New Mexico REAL ID compliant moves to the Democratic-controlled Senate, state lawmakers remain far apart on key details midway through the 30-day legislative session.

The bickering, along with a failure to agree on even basic facts, has sparked fears that legislation might not pass out of the divided statehouse at a time when military installations have stopped accepting New Mexico driver’s licenses for entry.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security also said New Mexico IDs without a REAL ID fix won’t be accepted to board a commercial flight beginning in 2018.

“We need to resolve this soon,” said Jason Espinoza, president of New Mexico Association of Commerce & Industry, a statewide business advocacy group. “There is a lot at stake, and the uncertainty is hurting us.”

The GOP-led House passed a measure largely along party lines on Wednesday that would make residents apply for REAL ID-compliant driver’s licenses. It would end the practice of granting licenses to immigrants in the country illegally but would let them obtain a “driving privilege card.”

The Senate Public Affairs Committee has scheduled a meeting Tuesday on that proposal, but Democrats have vowed it would face certain death in the chamber. Senate Democrats also assigned the GOP bill to two other committees, likely killing the legislation this session.

The Public Affairs panel also will discuss another measure that would create a two-tier driver’s license system for state residents who want a REAL ID-compliant license and for those who don’t. A similar bill failed Wednesday in the full House, but that isn’t dissuading Democrats from pushing it again.

Immigrant advocates say they will crowd all Senate hearings on any proposal.

Marcela Diaz, executive director of Santa Fe-based Somos Un Pueblo Unido, said her immigrant advocacy group remained strongly opposed to the House REAL ID proposal. She said that bill “legalized discrimination” against immigrants because driver’s permit cards would make them a target for deportation.

Some business leaders, however, favor the House version and say it allows immigrants to drive while aligning the state with the tougher federal standards.

“We think it’s a compromise that works. We need to resolve this and move on to other things,” said Terri Cole, president/CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.