Embroiled in a high controversial push to bar the ability of undocumented immigrants from legally acquiring New Mexico driver's licenses, Gov. Susana Martínez has acknowledged for the first time that her paternal grandparents came to the U.S. illegally.

"I know they arrived without documents, especially my father's father," the Republican said Wednesday in an interview in Spanish with KLUZ-TV, the Albuquerque Univision affiliate.

When asked previously about reports that her grandfather was an unauthorized immigrant, her office has said Martínez was unsure of his status since he abandoned the family when her father was young. Her comments Wednesday appeared to be the first time she has answered the question definitively. 

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported in July that the 1930 U.S. Census Bureau record lists Martínez's paternal grandparents' citizenship status as "AL" for "alien," a status that refers to "all foreign-born persons neither naturalized nor having first papers." However, Martínez was not directly quoted in the story addressing her grandparents' immigration status.

Martínez spokesman Scott Darnell said Thursday the governor had just recently learned of her grandparents' immigration status through media reports that cited census records showing her grandfather entered the country illegally.

"The governor has no reason to question that 1930 Census record about her grandfather and has always known, and publicly spoken of the fact for years, that her family roots trace back to Mexico," Darnell said.

"It's unfortunate that some are choosing to personally attack the governor, but these tactics prove that supporters of giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants have run out of legitimate defenses for a bad policy."

Martínez has made headlines recently for her push to repeal a state law that lets undocumented immigrants get a New Mexico driver's license. She has added the issue to the agenda for a special session on redistricting that opened Tuesday.

New Mexico is one of only three states — the others are Washington and Utah — where an undocumented immigrant can get a driver's license because no proof of citizenship is required.

Martínez argues New Mexico's law jeopardizes public safety and attracts people who fraudulently claim to live in the state only to get ID cards that make it easier to stay in the country. Immigrant advocates, however, say the law allows more drivers to be insured in the state and helps law enforcement obtain needed safety data. They say the fraud cases Martínez often cites for reasons to change the law are isolated.

A similar repeal effort by Martínez failed in the state Senate during the regular session earlier this year. Martínez said she wanted legislators to take up the repeal again, despite some lawmakers' complaints that they should focus largely on redistricting.

It's unclear if lawmakers will have time to reconsider the repeal during the 30-day special session. But that hasn't stopped immigrant advocates from coming to Santa Fe to rally against the possible repeal.

In protests this week in Santa Fe, advocates and some religious leaders cited Martinez's family history as a reason the governor should drop her effort to repeal the driver's license law.

At a rally Thursday, protesters held posters bearing a likeness of a driver's license with a photograph of Martínez. A placard read: "Dear Susana. Do you know your history? Did you forget your roots?"

Martínez grew up in El Paso and is the nation's first elected Latina governor. She has called the issue of her family's immigrant past irrelevant, arguing immigration laws were different when her grandfather came from Mexico in the 1920s.

But Guadalupe San Miguel Jr., an author and University of Houston history professor, said immigration laws during the time Martínez says her grandparents came to the United States weren't much different than they are now. Those coming to the U.S. were subjected to a number of requirements if they wanted to stay legally, he said.

"What was different then was the lack of enforcement," San Miguel said. "The border patrol was created in 1917, and there were just a handful of border patrol agents. There was no way they could enforce the law."

San Miguel said because of the lack of enforcement Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans went back of forth between Mexico and the United States with little problems.

Lisa Y. Ramos, a Texas A&M University history professor, said most multigenerational Mexican Americans like Martínez have "at least one family member with an undocumented past" due to that free range of movement along the border in early part of the 20th century.

"But Mexican Americans weren't the only ones who have this undocumented past," said Ramos, who is writing a book on the Mexican-American civil rights movement. "A lot of other multigenerational Americans do, too, like Italian Americans."

In fact, then-Sen. Pete Domenici, (R-NM), acknowledged in 2007 during a debate over a failed immigration bill that his mother was an undocumented immigrant from Italy and was briefly detained by federal agents during World War II when he was a child. She eventually became a U.S. citizen.

But Ramos said the irony about Martínez's past is that she might not be governor of New Mexico today if her grandparents hadn't made the decision to enter the U.S. the way they did, when they did.

"She wouldn't be there if her grandfather, who was undocumented, hadn't come," Ramos said.

This article is based on the Associated Press. Associated Press writer Jeri Clausing contributed to this report.

Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras

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