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By Lukas Pleva September 9, 2010

Republican candidate says opponent Denish put 50,000 illegal immigrants behind wheels

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before New Mexico joined the list of states embroiled in heated debates over immigration policy. In her latest ad, Republican gubernatorial candidate Susana Martinez says that while she gave illegal criminals prison time, the Richardson-Denish administration gave out 50,000 licenses to illegal immigrants.

New Mexico is one of only three states in which illegal immigrants may apply for and receive drivers licenses --Utah and Washington are the other two. But we wanted to see whether Martinez's ad tells the full story.

First, some background. On March 14, 2003, Gov. Bill Richardson signed a bill that allows individuals without a Social Security number to apply for a New Mexico driver's license. During the registration process, the applicant is asked to provide an alternative means of identification, such as a personal taxpayer identification number, a valid passport issued by the country of citizenship, a Matricula Consular card issued after 2005 by the Mexican consulate or a foreign birth certificate with a notarized English translation. If all checks out, the Motor Vehicles Department will issue a driver's license, regardless of the applicant's immigration status.

In 2003, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Diane Denish was Richardson's lieutenant governor, so it is fair to say that she carries at least some responsibility for the policy, which in effect allowed illegal immigrants to apply for and receive a New Mexico driver's license. Proponents of the law said that it was a question of public safety. With a driver's license comes a driving record, which means that the police can keep track of dangerous drivers. It also meant that all drivers could buy insurance.

Still, we find that the ad is misleading on major points.

First, the number 50,000. According to Martinez's ad, that's how many illegal immigrants received a driver's license since the policy took effect. But S.U. Mahesh, a spokesman for the New Mexico's MVD, wrote us in an e-mail that the state does not track how many licenses it issues to those who are in the country illegally. Since 2003, it has issued around 80,000 licenses to foreign nationals, but there are no official statistics on how many of those were illegal immigrants. When we asked Martinez's campaign staff where the number came from, we were referred to two articles. In June 2010, The Albuquerque Journal reported that "more than 50,000 immigrants have obtained driver's licenses since 2003." Since the actual number is around 80,000, the newspaper's statement is technically accurate. But unlike Martinez, the article says "immigrants," not "illegal immigrants." The other account used the 80,000 figure.

Second, Martinez claims that Denish "gave" driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, but that is an over-simplification. Before Gov. Richardson signed the legislation, it had to receive stamp of approval from the New Mexico legislature. Moreover, the MVD does not automatically hand out drivers licenses. While it does not check the individual's immigration status, the MVD works with the Mexican and other governments to verify an applicant's identity. And as of July 2010, individuals without a Social Security number must schedule an appointment at the MVD in advance. The measure is aimed at making it easier for MVD clerks to review application documents in more detail, said MVD Director Michael Sandoval.

The ad also fails to point out that Denish has publicly said that she no longer supports the law because it has not worked as intended. "Diane Denish does not support giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and would seek to change that law," Chris Cervini, Denish's deputy campaign director, wrote in an e-mail to PolitiFact. The New Mexico Independent reported in July, 2010 that "Denish has said she’d consider stopping the issuance of licenses going forward." Her opponent, Martinez, has said she would go even further, revoking licenses already issued. Neither candidate has directly answered how she would deal with the consequences of ending the policy, including an uptick in the state's uninsured rate, according to the Independent.

So let's go back over what we've found. Martinez says that Diane Denish "gave" 50,000 licenses to illegal immigrants. First, the MVD doesn't just hand out drivers licenses:  It takes steps to verify an individual's identity, and the rules are getting tougher. Second, while it's reasonable to believe that some of the immigrants who received licenses under the policy are in the country illegally, the numbers don't support the claim. The state doesn't keep track of how many licenses are issued to illegal immigrants, so all we can be sure of is that since 2003, 80,000 foreign nationals have received drivers licenses. Third, while Denish supported the measure when it was enacted, the ad conveniently ignores Denish's public statements that she no longer supports the policy. Finally, the ad equates being a non-citizen with being an illegal immigrant. For us, it adds up to Barely True.

Featured Fact-check

Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.

Our Sources

YouTube, License, Aug. 31, 2010

The Associated Press, Illegal immigrants drawn to 3 states for driver's licenses, by Manuel Valdes and Tim Korte, Aug. 13, 2010

Bill Richardson, Signed bills from 2003 legislative session, accessed Sept. 8, 2010

New Mexico MVD, MVD Proof of Identity - No SSN, accessed Sept. 8, 2010

E-mail interview, Ted Kwong, Rapid Response Director for Susana Martinez, Sept. 3, 2010

E-mail interview, Chris Cervini, Deputy Campaign Director for Diane Denish, Sept. 4, 2010

E-mail interview, S.U. Mahesh, New Mexico MVD Spokesman, Sept. 2, 2010

Phone interview, Gilbert Gallegos, Richardson's Deputy Chief of Staff, Sept. 9, 2010

The New Mexico Independent, Martinez, like Denish, won’t talk about potential consequences of driver’s license decision, by Trip Jennings, July 13, 2010

Susana Martinez, Campaign Website: Border Security, accessed Sept. 8, 2010

The New Mexican, Governor's race re-ignites driver's license debate, by Kate Nash, May 29, 2010

The Associated Press, New law will require immigrants to make appointments for licenses, July 23, 2010

The Albuquerque Journal, Passport Needed for Ariz. Visit?, by Michael Coleman, June 10, 2010

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Republican candidate says opponent Denish put 50,000 illegal immigrants behind wheels

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