New Mexico is a border state with a very different political climate than its neighbors.
Debates over immigration often include a focus on respecting the diversity found throughout New Mexico. In the 2010 census, about 47 percent of New Mexicans identified as Hispanic or Latino and 10 percent identified as American Indian. The majority of potential Hispanic voters are not recent immigrants or even the children of immigrants. Some families go back for generations, even to Spanish settlement in the 1500s.
State leaders place a high value on inclusion and tolerance, with some saying that attitude sets New Mexico apart from other border states like Arizona. Two states, New Mexico and Washington State are the only ones that grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants; Utah offers a separate ‘driving privilege card.’
The New Mexico driver’s license policy has become a political battle in recent years but it’s mostly simmering behind the scenes in the 2012 campaigns. Governor Susana Martinez, a Republican, has sought to have the driver’s license policy repealed since she took office almost two years ago. Martinez, a former District Attorney in Las Cruces near the U.S.-Mexico border, argues it’s a public safety issue because criminals might come from other states for licenses. Supporters of the policy also say it’s a public safety issue, but for a different reason.
Laurie Weahkee, director of the Albuquerque-based Native American Voters Alliance, says “a lot of Native American folks have mixed feelings about the driver’s license issue,” but her organization supports keeping it. “We feel that all drivers need to be licensed,” says Weakhee, because “it promotes safety for everyone.” Weahkee, who is Dineh, Cochiti, and Zuni Pueblo Indian, says undocumented immigrants who have a driver’s license can purchase car insurance and are more likely to stick around after an accident to file a police report because they don’t have to be afraid of interacting with the police.
New Mexico’s 19 pueblos have deep roots to the land that their ancestors called home and have dealt with newcomers for centuries. San Ildefonso Pueblo Governor Terry Aguilar says his tribe cooperates with local and state officials on immigration issues, but they have not taken a stance on the New Mexico driver’s license policy. Governor Aguilar says as long as tribes are able to maintain sovereignty in their own laws, federal immigration laws should continue to be enforced and “everybody should be accountable for their actions.”
Erny Zah, a spokesman with the Navajo Nation Governor’s office, says the Navajo Nation also doesn’t have an official policy on the New Mexico driver’s license law, but it opposed SB 1070 in Arizona. The Arizona law gave local police the power to question individuals about their immigration status and ask for proof of citizenship. The Navajo Nation includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Zah says public opinion among Navajo Nation members appears to be split on the issue of illegal immigration, “sometimes I hear people say that they’re welcome and at the same time I hear people say they’re not. People agree the Arizona immigration law puts our people at risk for being unnecessarily harassed.” Zah says he has not heard complaints about profiling in New Mexico.
New Mexico state lawmakers have not proposed any immigration laws that resemble the measures in Arizona, but the driver’s license issue will likely come up again in the next session of the state legislature. Governor Martinez vows to continue to push to repeal the law. The governor sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security earlier this month expressing concern that New Mexico will not be in compliance when the federal REAL ID Act is implemented in January. She says New Mexico driver’s licenses would not be an acceptable form of identification in airports or federal facilities because legal residency is not verified.
Some say the focus on driver’s licenses might start taking attention away from other important issues. Laurie Weahkee says the economy and health care are more important issues this year, but she hopes the state will maintain support for immigrants who are “striving to be part of the community, to be recognized, to offer good things to our community.”