NM Senate panel approves REAL ID compromise

Russell Contreras
The Associated Press
Fabiola Bawden, left, and Blanca Cardenas, with the Albuquerque-based immigrant advocacy group El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, get ready to speak Tuesday in Santa Fe before a legislative committee.

ALBUQUERQUE — A key New Mexico Senate committee passed a measure Tuesday that lawmakers called a workable compromise aimed at making the state compliant under federal regulations for identification.

After nearly a four-hour meeting where various proposals were presented, the Senate Public Affairs Committee voted 8-1 to combine a bipartisan bill with a recently passed version out of the Republican-controlled House as pressure mounted to pass a fix that meets the requirements of the federal REAL ID Act.

The combined bill would allow all New Mexico residents to apply for REAL ID-compliant licenses or obtain a "driver's authorization card."

Under the proposal, immigrants in the country illegally would be allowed to apply for the permit card but could no longer get a New Mexico driver's license.

Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said the move was needed to get a compromise out of the full Senate and get it back in the House in time before the 30-day Legislative session ends in less than three weeks.

"The citizens of New Mexico are ready for us to act," said Ingle, who co-sponsored a bipartisan bill similar to the one the committee passed. "It gets us to a point."

Three Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the combined bill, which now moves to the Senate Judiciary Committee.But Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said the move to combine bills was a hijacking of the version that passed the GOP-controlled House, which Republican Gov. Susana Martinez said she would sign.

The fate of legislation aimed at bringing New Mexico into compliance with tougher federal identification requirements fell in hands of the Democratic-led Senate after the GOP-led House passed its version last week.

Competing proposals had differed on how the state deals with immigrants living in the country illegally who want to lawfully drive in New Mexico.

A version favored by Martinez and passed by the House would have required legal residents to get a REAL ID-compliant license and only allow immigrants to obtain a driver's permit card.

Rachel LaZar, executive director of the Albuquerque-based immigrant advocacy group El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, speaks to immigrant advocates Tuesday in Santa Fe.

Some Senate Democrats, however, had pushed for a proposal that would create a two-tier system, granting REAL ID-compliant licenses to those who want them and non-compliant ones to others who don't want to go through the federal requirements. Immigrants in the country illegally would be able to obtain non-compliant licenses.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez said he was open to blending the two competing proposals.

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 statedriver's licenses regardless of legal status.

Mike Lonergan, a spokesman for Martinez, said the governor had problems with the bill passed Tuesday because it doesn't require immigrants to submit fingerprints for background checks.

"While the amended bill will stop giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, it unacceptably retreats on provisions already agreed to by Senate leaders — like requiring fingerprints before driver permits are provided to illegal immigrants," Lonergan said. "It also has several provisions in it that actually make it easier to commit fraud. We will continue to review this legislation."

"We don't intend to negotiate through the media, but the governor has been clear that any bill that passes the Legislature must end the practice of giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and contain the common-sense security provisions and standards New Mexicans expect and deserve, or it will be vetoed," Sanchez said.

Since the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced last year that New Mexico wouldn't get an extension from the tougher requirements, some military installations, such as White Sands Missile Range, have stopped accepting state driver's licenses for entrance.

Commercial airplane flights will stop accepting current New Mexico driver's licenses by 2018, federal officials said.

Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, who had supported bills to allow immigrants to keep driver's licenses, said he was pleased with the compromise.

"This is a positive step forward," he said. "But we still have a long way to go."