Alejandra Gomez sat in a folding chair near the parking lot entrance at Gadsden High School on Election Day holding a sign that read, “Problems voting? Talk to me.”
Gomez worked for a Southern New Mexico advocacy organization last year that helps low-income families influence public policy. She described it as her first “real job.” Though she didn’t need a driver’s license to get the position, her New Mexico-issued license made work-related travel easier.
On that day last November, Gomez directed motorists to voting machines at the school and answered their questions. She also helped transport voters to a polling place in Chaparral.
Gomez, a 21-year-old mother of two, is one of tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants living in New Mexico. An unknown number have been issued driver’s licenses under a 2003 law that let people without Social Security numbers, including immigrants who aren’t in the United States legally, get licenses. Like Gomez, many use those licenses to accomplish everyday tasks such as going to work, taking children to school and buying groceries.
But there is a darker side to the driver’s license law, critics say: fraud and, worse, New Mexico’s welcome sign to criminal rings that exploit the law.
One doesn’t have to look far to find evidence of abuse.
In 2010, a Brazilian woman living in the United States illegally was issued a temporary New Mexico license. Officials discovered her fraudulent residency documents before mailing her permanent license.
The woman told officials she paid $4,000 to a Texas fraud ring for its help. That ring allegedly transported her from Georgia to Clovis and helped her get fake documents needed to apply for the license.
In that case, nine people are charged with helping at least 54 undocumented immigrants fraudulently obtain licenses. It’s one of 10 pending and recent cases in New Mexico.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has repeatedly cited such abuse to argue that state lawmakers should repeal the driver’s license law. Senate Democrats have fought back, saying they want to reduce fraud but give undocumented immigrants living here a way to legally drive – which was the reason for enacting the law in the first place.
At the time, advocates of the law argued that licensing undocumented immigrants would force those who were already driving to get auto insurance and would give law enforcement a way to track them. Some have likely obtained insurance because of the law, but immigrants don’t represent a large enough percentage of licensed drivers to affect uninsured motorist statistics much.
Though some involved in the debate over repealing or reforming the license law focus on public-safety fears, and others focus on immigration concerns, the stories of Gomez and the Brazilian woman reveal that this is both an immigration and public-safety issue.
New Mexico’s license law has opened the door for fraud and, potentially, other crime, but repealing it would take from many undocumented immigrants who live in New Mexico the licenses they use to conduct everyday business such as working and going to doctors’ appointments.
Beginning next week, policymakers will fight the battle over repealing or reforming the law again during the legislative session.
Giving licenses is ‘the right thing to do,’ activist says
Some 85,000 undocumented immigrants, including 50,000 in the labor force, lived in New Mexico in 2010, according to the nonprofit Pew Hispanic Center, a national research organization.
No one knows how many have New Mexico driver’s licenses. The state issued 96,000 of its 1.7 million current licenses to people without Social Security numbers, a group that also includes foreign nationals who are here legally. The state makes no distinction, in issuing licenses, between those who are here legally and those who are not.
Gomez became a licensed driver in 2009 when she took her Mexican birth certificate, Matricula Consular card, and water and garbage bills to the MVD office in Sunland Park and passed written and driving tests. She was 18.
Her job with Comunidades en Acción y de Fé (Communities in Action and Faith, or CAFÉ) required regular travel from her home in Anthony to Chaparral and Las Cruces. She was not an employee. Undocumented immigrants can legally own businesses, so CAFÉ helped Gomez start a company and then contracted with it for her services.
Before working for CAFÉ, Gomez babysat and cleaned houses – “stuff where they don’t ask for your papers,” as she put it. The CAFÉ job was different.
“I actually feel like I’m making a difference. I feel like I’m doing my part,” she said while holding the sign in front of Gadsden High in November.
Sarah Nolan, CAFÉ’s executive director and Gomez’s former boss, acknowledged that license fraud is a problem. But, for her, there is a more important issue.
“There are New Mexicans who need driver’s licenses to get to work, to get to school, to feed their kids,” she said. “I’m not going to give an enforcement or a legal explanation. Mine is a moral explanation. It’s the right thing to do to help out our brothers and sisters that don’t have the opportunities we have as citizens.”
Alan Tarango also worked for CAFÉ last year. The 19-year-old undocumented immigrant, who lives in Sunland Park, doesn’t have a driver’s license and sometimes wasn’t able to find a ride to CAFÉ’s office in Las Cruces.
Tarango, a Mexican citizen, is gathering paperwork and hopes to get his license soon, which he thinks will help him land a delivery job in Sunland Park or something in nearby El Paso, Texas.
Martinez pledged to continue opposing any bill that lets people without legal status, like Tarango and Gomez, obtain driver’s licenses.
“My position has always been that people who are here legally in some form or another can get a driver’s license. That is because New Mexico voters want it that way,” Martinez said during a recent interview at her home in Las Cruces.
Two polls have found that most New Mexicans agree with Martinez. Another found most New Mexicans are also open to a bill that preserves the law but does more to deter fraud.
Immigrant asks, ‘What if I drive anyway?’
Gomez fears repeal and said she wishes the governor could live like her for a day.
Family members brought Gomez to the United States when she was 2 or 3 years old – she doesn’t know exactly when. The United States is the only country she’s ever known. She said the government should allow her to take care of basic needs.
“What if my kid gets sick in the middle of the night and I don’t have a driver’s license to drive her?” she asked. “What if my baby’s daddy’s not here? We can’t depend on other people all the time.”
“What if I drive anyway?” Gomez asked.
If the law is repealed, Martinez said, undocumented immigrants like Gomez would have to make do. The governor has supported legislation that would let them keep their licenses until they expire, but they couldn’t renew.
“They did get around before this law was passed, and of course there’s other means of transportation, not just you driving yourself in your vehicle,” Martinez said.
Tarango, who was also brought here as a child, doesn’t have access to public transportation. If the law is repealed, he said he would drive illegally. He needs work.
“When push comes to shove, with things getting difficult as it is, I would just risk it if it comes down to that,” Tarango said.
No one knows if fraud is widespread in NM
The criminal cases brought in recent years allege that more than 160 immigrants fraudulently obtained or tried to obtain New Mexico licenses. No one knows whether that represents most of the fraud or a small fraction, though some on both sides of the debate claim otherwise.
The New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department has worked to try to quantify the fraud. In August 2011, the agency identified 170 addresses that were allegedly home to 10 or more people who didn’t provide Social Security numbers when they obtained licenses, said Scott Darnell, Martinez’s deputy chief of staff.
Some 48 claimed to live at a smoke shop. A mobile home was allegedly home to 31.
While there isn’t proof that all flagged addresses were used fraudulently, Darnell said investigators checked more than 100 addresses and found “disturbing patterns.” Many licenses were issued at one address in a short time period and then none were issued again at the address, he said. Or many licenses were issued to people with different last names listing the same address. Residents investigators interviewed often said they knew nothing about the number of people who listed the locations as their homes.
“You don’t have a clue who you’re giving licenses to, and that’s why you can’t take a chance,” Martinez said.
About 16,000 of the 96,000 licensed drivers who were issued licenses without presenting Social Security numbers filed federal and state personal taxes last year, according to the state tax agency. That suggests that tens of thousands of licensed immigrants “flee with the document to elsewhere in the country or world,” Darnell asserted.
That’s one possibility. But not all foreign nationals without Social Security numbers have to file tax returns.
Ninth Judicial District Attorney Matt Chandler, who is prosecuting the case involving the Brazilian woman, cites Tax and Revenue’s work to back up his assertion that fraud is widespread. Investigators lack resources to catch it all, he said, but he hopes his case “at least sent a message that we’re paying attention.”
Immigration attorney Charles Kuck of Atlanta said he has represented hundreds of immigrants who live in Georgia but have driver’s licenses from New Mexico or Washington, the only other state that lets undocumented immigrants obtain licenses. Illinois is poised to become the third after that state’s House passed legislation Tuesday that the governor said he would sign.
Based on his experience, Kuck, who is helping the Brazilian woman gain legal status while she cooperates with Chandler’s case, believes fraud is rampant in New Mexico and Washington.
License fraud also happens in states where undocumented immigrants can’t legally obtain licenses, but there’s disagreement about whether such fraud is worse in those states.
A Tax and Revenue official said Kuck’s client, the Brazilian woman, used a North Carolina driver’s license when applying for a license in New Mexico. No one could explain to NMID how she obtained a license from that state, which doesn’t let undocumented immigrants get licenses.
Can there be compromise?
In New Mexico, what the Senate Democrats have proposed in the past preserves the license law to help immigrants like Gomez and Tarango. It attempted to address public safety concerns by toughening fraud penalties and creating additional requirements for people without Social Security numbers, including fingerprinting. Current license holders who don’t have Social Security numbers would have been required to get new licenses under the tougher requirements.
Martinez opposed the proposal because it would still give undocumented immigrants a way to legally drive. For the same reason, she opposes a Utah-style law, which Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, and others said lawmakers should consider.
Utah issues what it calls driving privilege cards, not licenses, to those without Social Security numbers. Those cards can’t be used as government IDs, and immigrants need federal taxpayer numbers to qualify. Utah’s law is tougher on fraud than New Mexico’s existing law and the Senate Democrats’ proposal.
Another potential middle-ground solution exists in California, Georgia and several other states that let those who qualify for the Obama administration’s deferred action program get licenses. The federal program lets immigrants get work permits if they were brought here illegally as children and meet certain criteria. More than 500,000 have applied and more than 355,000 have been accepted.
Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Farmington and a supporter of repealing the current law, said there is “middle ground” when considering immigrants who were brought here illegally as children. He said he is willing to discuss the possibility of letting them obtain licenses.
But the governor isn’t ready to back such a proposal.
If federal courts rule that deferred action grants legal status, Martinez said she would support letting such immigrants obtain licenses. That probably won’t happen during the upcoming session, and Martinez said she wouldn’t jump ahead of the courts.
In the meantime, New Mexico policymakers may find themselves deadlocked again – unable to find a way to address needs of undocumented immigrants living in New Mexico and concerns about out-of-state immigrants abusing the system to fraudulently obtain licenses.