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Immigration Special Report: New Mexico Immigrant Fight WidensKent Paterson for Salem-News.com
Immigrants aren’t taking matters sitting down... instead they're mobilizing in different New Mexico communities,
(LAS CRUCES, N.M.) - Defying the stormy skies of a late summer monsoon season, immigrants and their supporters had a message for New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez: Stop targeting our families and start working on education, jobs and other matters of vital importance in an economically hard -pressed state.
Convened by El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, an immigrant rights organization based in Albuquerque, scores of demonstrators turned out September 1 in front of state Motor Vehicle Department (MVD) offices in Albuquerque. A lively crowd of young and old alike protested a Martinez administration-ordered review of 10,000 state driver’s licenses previously issued to foreign-born people without Social Security numbers.
“Equality 4 Everyone,” read a sign carried by a protester who identified herself as Luz. “We only want respect and to contribute to the state,” Luz told the demonstration in Spanish. “We came to improve ourselves and our families.”
Supporters of New Mexico’s driver’s license law contend that it protects public safety by making sure people who will drive anyway are identifiable to law enforcement, carry insurance and know local traffic regulations and DWI law.
The Martinez administration, however, insists that making driver’s licenses available to undocumented persons jeopardizes public security and creates a magnet for organized crime gangs that seek profit from selling New Mexico licenses to unauthorized immigrants in other states.
The Martinez administration was unsuccessful in getting state lawmakers to repeal the driver’s license law during the 2011 session. The Republican governor is expected to raise the issue again when lawmakers meet for a special legislative session in Santa Fe next week.
This summer, the MVD sent letters to many license holders ordering them to make an appointment within 30 days at MVD offices in Albuquerque and Las Cruces, where paperwork proving identity and New Mexico residency would be checked, or face cancellation of their driver’s licenses.
Immigrant rights groups and advocates responded by staging public protests against the MVD’s new Residency Certification Program and taking it to court. Besides accusing the Martinez administration of violating its constitutional authority, critics charge that hard-working immigrants are being singled out for harassment and used as a political football in the hot-button immigration issue.
But the Albuquerque protest was also an occasion for celebration. On August 31, New Mexico District Judge Sarah Singleton issued a temporary restraining order against the Residency Certification Program and ordered a halt to “any efforts to continue the re-verification and/or cancellation” of previously issued licenses and identification cards.
As of Labor Day weekend, the state MVD had not posted news of the restraining order on its website. A 1-855 number set up by the state for scheduling appointments of the selected license holders was still operative, but not taking calls for the weekend and holiday.
“We’re concerned about the constitutional rights of everyone in New Mexico, and the court agreed with us,” Rachel LaZar of El Centro told the Albuquerque demonstration. In addition to undocumented persons, legal residents and citizens have also been among the recipients of the 30-day letters, LaZar said.
“That victory isn’t because of attorneys,” LaZar said of Judge Singleton’s order. “It’s because of folks like you out in the community saying we won’t allow this to happen.”
In a rhythmic Spanish that elicited the proverbial honk from traffic on Albuquerque’s busy Central Avenue, placard-waving demonstrators chanted “Susana, escucha, estamos en la lucha,” or “Listen up, Susana, we are in struggle.”
Groups participating in the September 1 demonstration included the Southwest Organizing Project, New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, Jewish Federation of New Mexico and Answer Coalition, among others.
In a phone interview with Frontera NorteSur, David Urias, attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed last week against the Residency Certification Program, laid out the legal bases for hauling the Martinez administration into court. Urias said the license review infringes on the constitutional separation of powers as well as equal protection rights.
In 2003, during the administration of Democratic Governor Bill Richardson, the New Mexico State Legislature passed the law that approved driver’s licenses for undocumented residents, Urias said, but did not give the executive branch the authority to enact measures like the Residency Certification Program. The lawyer characterized the Martinez administration’s program as a “nefarious” fishing expedition.
“That’s against the rule of law,” Urias maintained. “That’s not America, not New Mexico.”
The sending of 30-day letters to 10,000 randomly-picked foreign nationals constituted an additional legal no-no, Urias contended.
“They’ve targeted them as some kind of suspect class,” he said, adding that administration officials do not have a “shred of evidence” that an individual letter recipient has committed wrong-doing.
Marcela Diaz, executive director of the statewide immigrant and labor rights group Somos un Pueblo Unido, concurred with Urias.
“People have complied with the law, but are being singled out, basically because they are immigrants,” Diaz said.
When the Residency Verification Program was announced in July, the Martinez administration publicly stated it would review all New Mexico driver’s licenses granted to foreign nationals if “results of the (random) effort point to a serious problem of issuing licenses to non-residents.”
According to the administration, more than 85,000 foreign nationals without a Social Security number have obtained New Mexico driver’s licenses since the current law was passed in 2003.
Along with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Urias is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla, who oversees the MVD.
The plaintiffs include Democratic state legislators Miguel Garcia, Eliseo Alcon, Howie Morales and Gerald Ortiz y Pino, joined by New Mexico resident Marisela Morales.
Lately, the Martinez administration has emphasized two high-profile indictments in Bernalillo County last month to advance its campaign against the driver’s license law.
In the first instance, the “leaders of a Chinese crime ring” are accused of using fraudulent documents to obtain licenses for undocumented Chinese immigrants residing outside the state, according to Martinez’s office. In the second example, Albuquerque resident Ana Hernandez, who was previously indicted for heroin trafficking, is charged with creating fake documents to get driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
In a statement on the Hernandez affair, Governor Martinez called the indictment “yet another egregious case” of how the driver’s license law attracts criminals to New Mexico. “That is why I’m calling on the legislature to repeal the driver’s license law during (September’s) special legislative session,” the first-term governor said.
In addition to the latest legal cases, Martinez’s office has documented five other cases in Albuquerque and Santa Fe since last year that involve schemes to obtain licenses for non-resident immigrants of Chinese, Brazilian, Polish and other backgrounds.
Interviewed at the Albuquerque rally, state Rep. Miguel Garcia said Governor Martinez was over-hyping the fraud cases to get her political way during the special session, which this year is supposed to be focused on political redistricting.
The lawmaker from Albuquerque’s South Valley said his colleagues were willing to compromise on the driver’s license issue during the last regular session, by increasing criminal penalties and tightening up other aspects of the licensing system, but that Martinez refused to meet them half-way even when members of her own party were willing to do so. “All she’s doing is falling on her face,” Garcia asserted.
Praising Judge Singleton’s temporary restraining order, Garcia said the real meaning of having driver’s licenses available to immigrants was exemplified by Albuquerque resident Antonio Diaz last month. Jumping in his vehicle, the young man chased after a man he spotted abducting a six-year-old girl and is credited with likely rescuing the child’s life.
A self-acknowledged undocumented resident married to a US citizen, Diaz received widespread international media exposure for his act and was honored as a hero in an official City of Albuquerque ceremony. Diaz’s courage, Garcia said, put “kind of a face” on the driver’s license controversy.
In Santa Fe, meanwhile, Somos un Pueblo Unido has fielded “dozens and dozens” of complaints from across New Mexico about the 30-day letters, organizational director Marcela Diaz told Frontera NorteSur. Diaz said she has heard that the MVD confiscated documents and threatened to call the immigration authorities on some people.
Many letter recipients have had trouble complying with the 30-day deadline, Diaz said, because of problems with travel money, work demands, health and getting essential paperwork from the Mexican Consulate.
When the program was Residency Verification Program was launched several weeks ago, all the letter recipients were initially required to report to Albuquerque, even though Border Patrol checkpoints in southern New Mexico effectively prevent many license holders from making the long trip to the Duke City; the MVD then added a second office for compliance review in Las Cruces.
Diaz contended that the “show me your papers again program” was more about creating a favorable political climate for the governor’s agenda in the special legislative session and less about license verification. “This program was ill-conceived from the beginning,” Diaz maintained. “This program wasn’t meant to succeed.”
Immigrants aren’t taking the matter sitting down and instead mobilizing in different New Mexico communities, the veteran human rights activist stressed.
“There’s a lot of activity happening all over the state,” Diaz added. In conjunction with allied groups, Somos un Pueblo Unido is planning a statewide rally for high noon on September 8 outside the State Capitol in Santa Fe, as New Mexico lawmakers get down to work in their special session.
On the legal front, Judge Singleton has scheduled a September 13 hearing in Santa Fe that will consider her temporary restraining order. Plaintiffs’ Attorney David Urias said he is confident his side will prevail in District Court but is nonetheless prepared to take the issue all the way to the New Mexico Supreme Court if necessary.
Apart from the immediate driver’s license conflict, Urias said the executive branch’s creation of the Residency Verification Program has broader implications that cut to the essence of democratic governance and the respective roles of legislators and governors. “This is about the overreach of government.” the New Mexico lawyer said.
Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story on Judge Singleton’s restraining order and the driver’s license issue.
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
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