Ortiz y Pino
License to Rage
Gov. Susana Martinez is pumping up public outrage over the driver's license issue. It's like watching a prosecutor work a jury with an emotional closing argument.
That’s what she still is: a prosecutor arguing her case. Unfortunately, what we need is something else: a governor leading a divided state toward resolution, not one spouting overheated rhetoric.
To listen to Martinez and her flacks—including the Journal editorial writers and the KKOB talk jocks—the No. 1 issue facing New Mexico this year is not our need for jobs. It's not our fumbling of sustainable energy development. It's not our educational deficits or our 300,000 citizens without health care coverage. It's not any of the genuine crises we are ignoring.
That’s what sheriffs and other law enforcement officials said they wanted eight years ago.
No, if you believe the panicky bulletins issued daily, the most immediate peril New Mexico faces is that non-citizens are getting driver's licenses and insurance to get to work or school. What a menace.
Listen, let’s all try to get a grip. Look at the facts, governor. Not imaginary fears or delusions. Just simple facts.
First, the system is working just fine. It may need to be tweaked here or there, but it definitely doesn’t need to be dumped. It is doing exactly what it was intended to do when it was enacted: increase public safety.
That’s what sheriffs and other law enforcement officials said they wanted eight years ago. They testified in support of permitting MVD offices to issue licenses to persons without Social Security numbers. That practice has, since then, done at least three things to improve our safety.
A great many of the 82,000 foreign nationals we’ve registered in New Mexico are not here illegally.
• First, it provides an effective way to track all drivers using our streets and highways. When there’s an accident, the police can rely on license information to determine where those involved are residing.
• Second, it greatly improves the willingness of drivers to hang around after an accident and talk to the police, to approach officers for assistance, and to report crimes when they are victims. They trust law enforcement.
• Finally, it has led to a major decrease in the number of uninsured drivers on the state’s roads. It is a law that fosters respect for our system because it respects our drivers. And, last time I looked, it is widespread respect for the law, far more than the necessarily inconsistent enforcement of the law, which holds a society together.
Put another way, we all rely on each other’s willingness to obey laws—even when we know the police aren’t around to catch violations. That’s why a society works or doesn’t work. It has nothing to do with sheer quantities of police.
Our law has been in place for seven years. Utah and Washington have similar laws. Now it is suddenly being described as a menace in tones calculated to stir up rage. Those who oppose the governor on this are being derided as coddlers of criminals and soft on terrorism.
This is a familiar tactic, a variation on the one Martinez employed in savaging her main Republican primary opponent, Allen Weh. She lambasted him for favoring “amnesty for illegals.” This preposterous lie was based on his support, five years previous, for a comprehensive immigration reform bill proposed by George W. Bush. That bill was even endorsed at the time by our resident Republican saint, then-Sen. Pete Domenici. But Weh was unable to get that through to the press.
The word “amnesty” doesn’t appear anywhere in that bill, but it has become a handy label for any treatment of immigrants that doesn’t involve marching them to the border at rifle-point. Martinez made that divisive campaign tactic work. Now she’s using it again.
If we stopped licensing undocumented immigrants, what would happen? They’d continue to drive (they have to drive), but on forged licenses or with no license at all. Our auto insurance premiums would have to go up to cover the increase in uninsured drivers. And at accidents, unlicensed drivers wouldn’t give information to the police. Instead, they’d get as far away as fast as possible.
Some ask, “What about ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?”
A great many of the 82,000 foreign nationals we’ve registered in New Mexico are not here illegally. Without Social Security numbers they can get licenses using passports (27 percent) or identification cards issued by the Mexican consul (15 percent) or with individual tax identification numbers (16 percent).
More basically, even those who are here without valid immigration papers have not committed a crime. It is a violation of U.S. immigration policy to be here without adequate documents, but it is not criminal. The government doesn’t charge those violators with crimes, doesn’t hold trials, doesn’t send violators to prison. They are simply deported.
A great many people in our state are here without papers. The vast majority are here to work, nothing else. They obey the laws. They send their kids to school. They pay their taxes like everyone else—and they try to stay invisible. We need their labor. Their kids will be this nation’s next generation of citizens. Why would we ever want to marginalize them, Gov. Martinez?
Jerry Ortiz y Pino is a retired social worker, community activist and college instructor. He is in his second term as Democratic state senator for District 12 in the New Mexico Legislature. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.