SANTA TERESA, N.M. – In this booming New Mexico town along the U.S.-Mexico border, a private railroad company rarely stops filling orders. Developers race to build more warehouse space for investors interested in relocating to the unincorporated community.
But business leaders say the legislative stalemate over making state driver’s licenses comply with new federal standards may slow the growth in bustling Santa Teresa and hurt other towns trying to attract investment in a still-sluggish economy.
Potential investors may overlook New Mexico if workers can’t get licenses that align with the federal REAL ID Act, said Jerry Pacheco, president of the Border Industrial Association, the nonprofit that functions as a de facto government overseeing Santa Teresa.
“It’s a concern,” Pacheco said. “I mean, if you are a business owner, one of the factors you consider before relocating is the quality of life for your workers.”
The REAL ID Act requires proof of legal U.S. residency for those who want to use state identification to access certain areas of federal facilities. New Mexico has no such requirement and allows immigrants to get state driver’s licenses regardless of legal status.
Since the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced last year that New Mexico wouldn’t get an extension from the tougher requirements, some military installations, such as White Sands Missile Range, have stopped accepting state driver’s licenses for entrance. Federal officials also say the licenses will no longer be accepted to board commercial flights starting in 2018.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers are blaming each other for the dilemma, saying the other side has failed to agree to proposals that would have avoided the confusion.
The parties also are stirring concern among business leaders who fear lawmakers may not come to a compromise in the 30-day legislative session.
A GOP-sponsored proposal that would make New Mexico licenses compliant and give driver’s permits to immigrants in the country illegally passed a House committee after a heated meeting Thursday. Opponents called the bill “anti-immigrant” and “racist.”
Democrats and immigrant advocates are pushing a plan in the state Senate that would allow such immigrants to keep driver’s licenses. Republicans say that bill would not put New Mexico in line with the REAL ID Act, which Democrats deny.
Mike Puelle, CEO of Associated General Contractors New Mexico, said the unpredictability has made it hard for contractors to make plans.
“To get on our (military) bases, your workers need a REAL ID to get a badge to enter. You are talking about carpet cleaners, builders and so on,” said Puelle, who supports the GOP proposal.
Business leaders have been active in the past during the legislative debate over the state driver’s license law but will be especially visible this session, said Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.
“We believe it is absolutely time to get this problem solved,” Cole said.
Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican who supports the GOP proposal, said any failure to reach a compromise would be because of Democrats.
“Despite offering numerous compromises along the way, Democrats in the Legislature have refused to budge and insist on handing out driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants – something that an overwhelming majority of New Mexicans disagree with,” Martinez spokesman Mike Lonergan said.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez said Martinez and the Republicans are the ones who refuse to compromise.
“The ranchers and farmers I talk to want undocumented immigrants to have driver’s licenses,” he said.