Mónica Ortiz Uribe/Fronteras Desk
Those who want to repeal New Mexico’s law that lets undocumented immigrants obtain driver’s licenses fear that terrorists or other criminals could use the identification cards to move freely around the country.
One pending criminal case in New Mexico allegedly involved at least 54 undocumented immigrants who obtained licenses at the state Motor Vehicle Division in Portales using fraudulent documents. Prosecutors say those 54 don’t live at the addresses they claimed as their homes.
We don’t know if any of those 54 has committed crimes beyond license fraud. We don’t know where they are.
We don’t even know with any certainty who they are.
That worries Gov. Susana Martinez, the leader of the charge for repeal of the license law. She said New Mexico has created “a criminal industry where we now can no longer tell who truly lives here or doesn’t… and we don’t even know if their real name is being used.”
How immigrants allegedly obtained licenses
He’s charged in the Portales case with 37 counts of conspiracy to forge a driver’s license and two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Both are fourth-degree felonies. Collazo-Medrano remains at large.
In the Portales case, prosecutors allege a widespread scheme that involved flying immigrants to Amarillo, Texas, from Florida, Georgia, Illinois and South Carolina. They have indicted nine people on felony charges for their alleged roles in helping the immigrants obtain licenses. Some, including alleged ringleader Luis Raul Collazo-Medrano, remain at large.
From Amarillo, the undocumented immigrants were driven to Clovis, and sometimes Albuquerque, to obtain the documents they needed to apply for licenses, prosecutors say. Some were taken to Roswell to complete driving school.
When they applied for licenses, prosecutors allege, the immigrants often used fake bank statements and rental agreements. Vehicle titles allegedly came from automobiles sitting in a junkyard. One woman is charged with notarizing the fraudulent documents.
Whether the immigrants used fraudulently obtained IDs isn’t clear, prosecutor Matt Chandler said. Some obtained Matricula Consular cards from the Mexican consulate office in Albuquerque. Others used foreign birth certificates. A Brazilian woman used a North Carolina driver’s license, even though that state’s law doesn’t allow undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses.
Two of three Denny’s murderers had licenses
Martinez cited a 2009 murder case to explain why she opposes issuing licenses to undocumented immigrants.
Two of three El Salvadoran men involved in a fatal shooting at an Albuquerque-area Denny’s had New Mexico driver’s licenses. They were allegedly members of the violent gang MS-13 and in the United States illegally at the time of the shooting.
Martinez said one of the men had previously been stopped by a police officer who assumed he was here legally because the man had a New Mexico license. The officer didn’t call immigration authorities.
Marcela Diaz, executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, an immigrants rights organization, said the two men would have been in the United States with or without driver’s licenses. Adding undocumented immigrants to the state’s MVD database by allowing them to obtain licenses enhances public safety by helping authorities track and prosecute them when they commit crimes, she said.
Scott Darnell, Martinez’s deputy chief of staff, pointed to another case involving an Albuquerque woman, Ana Hernandez, who pleaded guilty in 2011 to using her notary position to help foreign nationals fraudulently obtain licenses. In a separate case, Hernandez was convicted on charges stemming from her role in a heroin ring run largely by undocumented immigrants.
That situation “represented a very concerning nexus between large amounts of drug trafficking and a clear intent to provide government-issued documents to those involved in buying, selling or moving the drugs,” Darnell said. “Clearly, a New Mexico license was quite helpful to those involved in that drug trafficking operation.”
The danger of ‘the wrong person’ getting a license
The Brazilian woman who allegedly paid the Portales ring for its help is cooperating with Chandler’s case and not being prosecuted. Atlanta attorney Charles Kuck is representing her in her immigration case.
In addition to worrying about fraud, Kuck shares Martinez’s concern about what might happen “if the wrong person got an ID in New Mexico and went out and did something terrible.” That’s why, of the three states that give undocumented immigrants a way to drive legally, he prefers Utah’s tougher system to those in New Mexico and Washington, which he said don’t do as much to combat fraud.
Utah issues what it calls driving privilege cards, not licenses, to those without Social Security numbers. The cards can’t be used for identification purposes at government offices.
Kuck doesn’t support Martinez’s push for repeal, but he does believe New Mexico’s law needs reform.
“I think it’s a really good thing New Mexico has done here. But it should be only for New Mexico residents,” Kuck said. “I understand where Susana Martinez is coming from.”
Editor’s note: NMID board member Gabriela Ibañez Guzmán is a staff attorney at the United Workers’ Center of New Mexico, a project at Somos Un Pueblo Unido, whose executive director was quoted in this article.