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It's Groundhog Day for New Mexico’s immigration priorities

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If you’ve seen the 1993 comedy, Groundhog Day, staring Bill Murray you know what it’s like to see the same things repeat over and over. And just like the movie, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez is now set to reintroduce the same tired legislation all over again to deny driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

But first a quick review. Last year Governor Martinez unsuccessfully attempted to repeal Governor Bill Richardson’s 2004 HB-401 law granting licenses to illegal aliens. His reasoning then, supported by law enforcement for public safety concerns, was because 33% of the state’s drivers were uninsured. According to Richardson, the measure was a success since four years later the number of unlicensed drivers dropped to 11%.

And personally, I vastly prefer the idea of all drivers understanding our traffic laws and being tested for their driving ability a lot more than I enjoy the prospect of punishing those for entering our country illegally.

After all, if a loved one were seriously injured or killed by an alien who was unable to get a driver’s license (thanks to Susana Martinez’s repeal), who would YOU blame?

Supporters of the law contend that continuing to provide drivers licenses to the undocumented is a humanitarian concern since many need to drive their American-born children to school, drive them to the doctor, and drive to work to earn money to support their families. For a list of the benefits of licenses for the undocumented, please review this fact sheet compiled by SomosUnPuebloUnido.org.

Martinez seems motivated by a 2012 poll showing that 71 percent of likely voters — including a majority of both Democrats and Hispanics — said they opposed allowing illegal immigrants to obtain licenses. However, not all measures that are popular should become law. For example, in the 60s the majority of white voters in red states like Alabama were against voting rights for African Americans. (Perhaps that is why many red states like Texas currently use redistricting to creatively dilute and suppress the state’s Hispanic vote).

Besides scoring easy political points, Martinez may be still be drinking the old Tea Party-inspired Kool Aide flavored with the “make [illegal’s] life so miserable on folks they’ll leave” philosophy popularized by Mitt Romney in his failed 2012 presidential bid. Of course, the idea of self-deportation was long ago debunked as a joke, but if Susana Martinez is basing a “centerpiece of her legislative agenda” on this, then the joke is on New Mexicans for electing her as governor.

And as a predominantly Christian nation we are supposedly in favor of welcoming newcomers, helping provide for those that are less fortunate, and in charity. Yet the message from the far right is precisely the opposite.

To be fair there are arguments to limit driver’s licenses to the undocumented. After all, who wants New Mexico to become a magnet state for those who would use NM to establish an identity in the United States get a bank account, own a home, and so forth?

But by framing the debate in the context of traffic safety is the most logical way to look at the matter because there are simple compromises that can easily satisfy both sides. New Mexico could just issue a special provisional license that cannot be transferred out of state (satisfying those that fear the spread of illegals beyond NM's borders), and making it clear that the ID can only be used for driving (safely), not for any other purpose. Utah, for example, grants illegals a license that can only be used for driving. Other computerized measures could be put in place that guard against address fraud.

So we have a choice: We can follow the governor’s lead for a strictly law-enforcement mentality to handle immigration issues in New Mexico, or we can follow the lead of forward thinking cities like Philadelphia and New York that provide more, not less services to immigrants and their families. Otherwise, New Mexico may continue to be at the very bottom of the United States in terms of child welfare — a dubious distinction for our Republican governor and a profound embarrassment to the citizens of our state.

New Mexico has a very short 2014 legislative session, running from January 21 to February 20. Let’s not waste a single minute on Groundhog Day legislation.

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