LAS CRUCES, N.M. -- Drivers born in another country who hold a New Mexico driver’s license are faced with a fast approaching deadline to verify they are actual residents of the state.
Governor Susana Martinez launched a residence verification program in June and sent 10,000 letters to random drivers who applied for their licenses with a foreign identification. Starting next month, people who don't comply may have their licenses cancelled.
The real targets of this program are illegal immigrants, some of whom came to New Mexico just to get a driver's license. New Mexico is one of only three states that don't require proof of legal U.S. residency to apply. An estimated 87,000 foreign nationals hold a New Mexico license, about 10 percent of all license holders. Among those are foreign students attending universities, U.S. residents and illegal immigrants.
At the New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division office in Las Cruces, things are busy. There is an area specifically set aside to handle the residence verification program. About 15 chairs are set up toward the back. All of them were filled by 10 a.m. on a recent weekday. The office is currently seeing up to 40 people a day who got a letter from the governor.
Imelda Arvizu is one of them. She works as a housekeeper at a Super 8 motel and lives off a state highway about 25 minutes out of town. She sits on a plastic chair while her young son enacts a make believe shoot-out with another kid. Arvizu is a U.S. resident, but she applied for her driver's license with a Mexican ID.
“People get nervous and scared,” she said. “They think there will be immigration agents waiting for them here.”
But there are no immigration agents. The woman sitting next to Arvizu is in the country illegally, but has 10 years worth of utility bills to affirm she lives in New Mexico.
That kind of proof will spare her from getting her license canceled – something Governor Martinez has been trying to do since she took office last year. The governor's effort to reform the driver's license law failed during the last legislative session. There have been recent protests against the governor's plans.
Demesia Padilla is the New Mexico cabinet secretary for Taxation and Revenue. She also oversees the residence verification program.
“We just want to totally and clearly demonstrate how problematic the issuance of driver's licenses to illegal immigrants is in the state of New Mexico,” Padilla said.
One of the biggest problems with the current driver's license law is that it's more inviting to those who would commit driver's license frthan 80 cases of suspected fraud have already shown up as part of the residence verification program, including people with stolen social security numbers, officials said. One-third of all the letters have been returned because the addresses were no longer valid. In the past, people from as far away as China and Poland have been arrested for suspected driver's license fraud.
But not all who apply have shady intentions.
A Texas man, who won't give his name because he is undocumented, moved to New Mexico for several months just to apply for a license. He moved back to Texas where he now runs a successful automotive business.
“I have a really good record here in the U.S. I pay my taxes,” the man said. “And now that I have (a driver's license), I feel free because I can travel and I can drive not being scared. And that feels awesome.”
New Mexico already has one of the highest rates of uninsured drivers in the nation, about 26 percent. Opponents of the governor's efforts say denying driver's licenses to illegal immigrants will result in more unlicensed and uninsured drivers on the road.
The governor has been attempting to repeal the law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses since she came into office. She is expected to try once more in a special session in September.