Driver's Licenses for Immigrants Becoming Rarer
By Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer
SANTA FE, N.M. — When Andrea Perez first drove her Dodge Neon to high school in Santa Fe back in 2001, she faced bigger road risks than most students: She drove without a license, because New Mexico wouldn't issue her one.
That's because Perez is in the country illegally. When she was 8 years old, Perez left Mexico with her mother to visit relatives in the United States for Christmas. They overstayed their visa and never went back. As a teenager in a spread-out suburban area, Perez says she had little choice but to drive the six miles to school and on other errands. And because she couldn't get a license, she couldn't get auto insurance, either.
"No, it's not the smartest and safest thing to be driving without a driver's license or without insurance," admits Perez, now a 24-year-old graduate student, who spoke with Stateline on the condition that her real name not be used. "But when it means getting to school, getting to work or getting to a doctor's appointment, that becomes a secondary issue."
Perez's situation changed in 2003, when New Mexico lawmakers decided to let undocumented immigrants qualify for a driver's license. For Perez and her family, it made a big difference. Now, she has a license and carries insurance for her Ford Explorer. Her mother no longer is afraid to drive. One of her uncles paid off back taxes in order to get a taxpayer number needed for the license. And it's easier for all of them to do everyday tasks such as renting a movie or setting up a bank account.
But New Mexico is the rare state that still allows undocumented residents to get driver's licenses. Not long ago, 10 states were in that group. One by one, they have been reversing course; Hawaii officially stopped the practice with a law that took effect July 1. Now, only New Mexico, Utah and Washington State permit unauthorized immigrants to drive, and in New Mexico, that may not last much longer. Both candidates in the race for governor say they would stop issuing new driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.
State policies toward immigrants have received more attention recently, in the wake of Arizona's controversial law that gives police more power to enforce immigration-related offenses. President Obama called for an end to "patchwork" regulations at the state and local level Thursday as he tried to revive immigration reform efforts on the national level.
A controversial policy
Even in traditionally immigrant-friendly states, the idea of issuing driver's licenses to undocumented residents has been a politically explosive one. One of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's first acts in office in 2003 was to repeal a driver's license law signed by his predecessor before it could take effect.
For a time, Illinois and New York debated allowing illegal immigrants to get licenses. Although neither state passed a law to that effect, their struggle with the issue briefly roiled the 2008 presidential race. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton sparred over it in the Democratic primary. Clinton opposed a proposal backed by New York's governor to allow the licenses, while Obama, who voted for a similar measure as an Illinois state senator, supported it.
But states such as Maine, New Mexico and Tennessee did allow the practice. The efforts generally were backed by police, who wanted to be able to identify drivers they pulled over. Auto insurers also lobbied in favor, arguing that the policy would result in fewer uninsured motorists and lower premiums for everybody. Of course, it also meant insurers could sell policies to more drivers.
The winds began to shift when the 9/11 Commission recommended that the federal government set standards for identification documents, including driver's licenses. The group pointed out that all but one of the 9/11 hijackers had obtained identification, some by fraudulent means.
"Fraud in identification documents is no longer just a problem of theft," the commission wrote in 2004. "At many entry points to vulnerable facilities, including gates for boarding aircraft, sources of identification are the last opportunity to ensure that these people are who they say they are and to check whether they are terrorists."
That recommendation eventually led to passage of the federal Real ID Act, the controversial law that imposed new rules on states concerning whom they can issue licenses to and how they must verify a driver's identity. State officials chafed at the cost of the law and sometimes openly flouted it, but many states tightened up restrictions on their own at the same time.
One state that got stricter is Maine. Recently, Maine began requiring driver's license holders to show they are in the country legally. Matthew Dunlap, who as secretary of state has overseen the transition, says the change has had no appreciable impact on the number of unlicensed or uninsured drivers on the road. Still, he says, "I do deal with angry citizens all of the time."
That's because a surprising number of Americans have problems producing proof of their citizenship. Dunlap says he's had to explain to World War II veterans that their military ID isn't good enough to get a driver's license; foreign nationals can fight in the armed forces, too. He's run into problems with Maine residents who were born at home, rather than at a hospital, and don't have a document to prove it. Another group of undocumented Americans is immigrants who came to the United States as children in the 1930s. They were granted citizenship but weren't given any paperwork to certify it.
The New Mexico experience
The state of New Mexico doesn't keep track of how many licenses it has issued to undocumented residents, but it does know that 80,000 licenses belong to people without Social Security numbers. That number accounts for immigrants like Perez, as well as other foreigners in the country legally, including exchange students and German pilots who train at Holloman Air Force Base.
All New Mexico drivers must show proof of identification and proof that they live in the state. To verify who they are, drivers can use a variety of documents. For foreigners, those include a passport from another country or a matricula consular , identification cards produced by the Mexican government, issued by consulates in Albuquerque or El Paso, Texas.
Applications without Social Security numbers undergo a second level of screening to look for document fraud, says Michael Sandoval, the director of the state's Motor Vehicle Division. When the process is complete, he says, "we are confident that they are who they say they are."
But some of the touted benefits of letting undocumented immigrants drive legally are hard to nail down. In 2007, New Mexico's rate of uninsured drivers was the highest in the country and only a percentage point lower than the 30-percent rate it had a decade earlier . Of course, there are many other factors that affect insurance costs and coverage rates, and fewer than 1 in 20 New Mexico drivers has no Social Security number. In any event, the insurance industry is staying out of the debate these days. "The basic issue for insurers is that (drivers) have passed the test and can read basic road signs," says Dave Snyder, a vice president of the American Insurance Association. "Who they issue licenses to is up to the state."
Susana Martinez, a border county prosecutor who won the Republican nomination for governor, argues that the policy makes it more difficult for police to do their jobs, too. "We're on the border fighting the issue daily," Martinez says. "We have something that contradicts the efforts by providing the driver's licenses."
In her campaign, Martinez has promised to stop giving illegal immigrants licenses. Her Democratic opponent, Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish, largely agrees. The two differ on whether existing license holders should be able to hold on to their licenses after the change takes effect. Martinez wants to revoke the licenses of undocumented immigrants, while Denish does not.
The law "was passed with the idea that it was going to make our roads safer, we were going to have fewer uninsured motorists," says Denish. "In the beginning, I believe that was true. But now we have scammers. Criminals are taking advantage and selling fraudulent documents."
Indeed, a number of scams have come to light in recent years:
- Rosa Pardo-Marrufo, an Albuquerque woman, is awaiting sentencing on forgery-related crimes. State investigators say Pardo-Marrufo charged illegal immigrants in other states $700 to $900 to get false documents, so they could get New Mexico driver's licenses. She was originally charged with more than 100 offenses, but in May she pleaded guilty to 11 crimes involving six different customers. She faces as much as 10 years in prison.
- In May, state authorities warned that names and addresses of New Mexicans were being taken from phone books in an identity-fraud scheme. The information was being used to apply for driver's licenses. (A Motor Vehicle Division spokesman declined to provide more details, because the investigation was ongoing, but he says it is a "sophisticated operation.")
- In 2008, the FBI arrested 10 illegal immigrants involved in a scheme to charge out-of-state undocumented immigrants thousands of dollars in order to get New Mexico licenses.
Sandoval, the motor vehicle division chief, says fraud is a concern "across the board," not just with licenses for undocumented drivers. Licensing agencies, he says, have dealt with problems of fraud ever since the drinking age moved up to 21.
And New Mexico's current governor, Democrat Bill Richardson, says he's confident the policy he promoted will last even after he leaves office next year. "I'm not going to criticize the lieutenant governor's position," he says. "She has to run her own race."
Still, in a state that is more than 40 percent Hispanic, the politics of the issue are complicated. While some say it's only a matter of time before New Mexico tightens its licensing policies, there's also a lot of sympathy for what having a driver's license has meant to people like Andrea Perez and her family. "I can tell you who's going to be the deterrent in making sure the undocumented workers continue to get the licenses," Richardson says. "The Legislature."