As the debate over the issuing of driver's licenses to applicants without social security numbers intensifies in New Mexico, the number of such licenses is falling.
The flow of driver's licenses to immigrants has slowed in New Mexico since the state tightened its application system last year, but the drop-off steepened after Republican Gov. Susana Martínez took office in January promising to end the licensing policy, according to a review of state records by The Associated Press.
Martínez has unsuccessfully pressed the Democratic-controlled Legislature to repeal New Mexico's immigrant license law, but fewer licenses are being issued to foreign nationals as the political debate intensifies. New Mexico is one of only three states where undocumented immigrants can be issued a driver's license.
New immigrant licenses those issued for the first time to people without a Social Security number dropped 57 percent during the first seven months of the Martínez administration compared to the same period a year ago under her predecessor, Democrat Bill Richardson.
Immigrant licenses in New Mexico declined 44 percent in the past 12 months compared with the previous one-year period, according to license numbers obtained from the state in response to a public records request by the AP.
The decline started in August 2010 after unauthorized immigrants and other foreign nationals were required to make an appointment for a driver's license at a Motor Vehicle Division office, rather than walking in at any time for the transaction.
New Mexico, Washington and Utah are the only states where an undocumented immigrant can get a license to drive because no Social Security number or proof of immigration status is required of applicants.
However, Utah's permit can't be used as an ID and the state changed its law this year to require a background check and fingerprinting of immigrants applying for a driving privilege card.
Washington has seen a drop in foreign national licenses this year, apparently because it tightened rules for showing residency by applicants without a Social Security number.
About 92,000 foreign national licenses have been issued in New Mexico from 2003 through July, according to Taxation and Revenue Department records. However, state officials do not know how many went to unauthorized immigrants because license applicants are not required to submit information about their immigration status.
New Mexico experienced a surge in foreign nationals getting licenses early last year after crackdowns on undocumented immigrants in neighboring Arizona and elsewhere. But that abruptly changed after the Richardson administration implemented the appointment system in late July 2010. The number of new licenses dropped by more than half the next month.
An average of 22 foreign national licenses have been issued daily from January through July this year. That's down from 52 a day during the same period last year and an average of 38 a day in 2009, according to an AP analysis of state records
A total of 9,079 new foreign national licenses were granted from August 2010 through July 2011 a drop of about 7,200 from the previous 12 months.
An immigrant rights group says the appointment system has lengthened the licensing process and created more difficulties for applicants.
"Most of the folks that we know within the last year who have been trying to get licenses have had to wait between four and seven months to get through the whole process," said Marcela Diaz, executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido.
An applicant may not initially bring the correct documents to an appointment and has to return after making another appointment. It can be difficult to schedule an appointment, she said, and the group has received more complaints from immigrants about administrative problems since Martínez took office.
Scott Darnell, a spokesman for Martínez, said, "Necessarily establishing an appointment schedule prevents MVD offices from being flooded with individuals looking to obtain a foreign national driver's license. It constrains the number of licenses that can be issued each day."
Martínez contends New Mexico has become a magnet for fraud and out-of-state immigrants trying to get a driver's license that can be used as ID elsewhere. But supporters say the license law improves public safety, lessening fear among immigrants to cooperate with police in reporting crimes and bolstering compliance with insurance requirements for motorists.
Darnell said the Martínez administration "is taking the oversight of this program and the security of New Mexico driver's licenses far more seriously than did the previous administration."
When the Richardson administration implemented the appointment system, MVD's director said the change could improve security by giving the agency more time to review documents submitted by applicants. It also was to reduce the waiting time for customers in an MVD office because an immigrant license application usually is a lengthy transaction.
Foreign national license applicants must pass written and driving tests as well as provide documents proving their identity and New Mexico residency. Those without a Social Security number can submit a taxpayer identification number issued by the federal government along with other identification such as a passport and a Matricula Consular card from a Mexican consulate in Albuquerque or El Paso, Texas.
An MVD clerk issues a 45-day driving permit if a foreign national's application is accepted, but the documents undergo a final check by tax fraud investigators before a permanent driver's license is mailed. A spokesman for the Taxation and Revenue Department says investigators cross reference some information, such as addresses and phone numbers, to look for "red flags."