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Bucking US trend, New Mexico House approves bill to repeal immigrant driver's license law

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SANTA FE, New Mexico — The New Mexico House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday that would end the state's practice of giving driver's licenses to people even if they can't prove they are in the country legally.

The GOP-led House passed the bill 39-29 after three hours of debate, with two Democrats siding with the Republicans in the majority. The measure would repeal the 2003 law that made New Mexico one of the first states to offer licenses to immigrants regardless of their legal status.

The bill now moves to the Democrat-controlled Senate for a vote, and Democrats have vowed to fight the legislation.

The House voted to repeal the law on the same day that the Senate in neighboring Colorado took action in the partisan showdown over granting driver's licenses to immigrants who are in the country illegally. Republicans in Colorado, who also made big gains in the 2014 elections, passed a measure Thursday that blocks funds for the state agency that oversees licenses.

A growing number of states around the country have been granting driver's licenses in recent years to people regardless of immigration status. In addition, President Barack Obama's executive actions to allow immigrants to remain in the country have forced other states to allow people in his deferred-action program to get licenses.

Ten states now offer licenses to immigrants who can't prove they are in the country legally.

Proponents of New Mexico's bill argue that repealing the law would help prevent fraud and bring the state into compliance with federal identification requirements.

"This bill is attempting to secure New Mexico's driver's licenses and bring us into compliance with the (federal) Real ID Act," said Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, whose repeal legislation garnered vigorous debate.

"In my heart I am trying to do the right thing," said the retired police officer. "I am not a malicious person. I am trying to solve a problem."

Those who want to keep the law the way it is argue it will hurt otherwise hard working families, and other states that have joined New Mexico in doling out licenses are not running afoul of federal ID laws.

Rep. Patricio Ruiloba, D-Albuquerque, a police officer with Albuquerque Public Schools, said the issue before the House was one of safety for the officer and the community. When an officer stops a motorist, it is important that the driver have an ID, which makes the traffic stop less dangerous for the officer, he said.

Retired police officer William "Bill" Rehm, R-Albuquerque, who has offered his own version of the repeal legislation, countered that he heard from state police organizations voicing support for the repeal.

House Minority Leader Brian Egolf offered a substitute bill that would allow New Mexico to issue two distinct licenses — one that would meet federal requirements and another that is not intended to be accepted by federal agencies. He said federal compliance was the key issue.

"We can do it today and stop the annual debate," Egolf said. His substitute was voted down.

Thursday's debate on the repeal bill was witnessed by about 250 children and parents, many of them wearing yellow shirts with lettering on the back that read, "Keep our parents licensed."

The bill would allow those who have proof that they qualified for Obama's deferred action program to get a license, but the license would expire when their status expires.

Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, asked lawmakers to consider how the repeal will impact "our kids, both undocumented and citizen kids alike."

"What are we going to do with the 90,000 children here who have at least one parent who is undocumented?" he said, adding that the proposal before the House "has tremendous unintended consequences for the people of New Mexico."

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