Published September 09, 2012
Santa Fe, N.M. – When New Mexico began issuing driver’s licenses to non-citizens in 2003, then-Governor Bill Richardson had argued the policy would reduce the high number of uninsured drivers in the state.
Nearly a decade later, national statistics indicate the law failed to live up to its expectations.
New Mexico continues to rank near the top of the list of states with the most uninsured drivers, consistently registering nearly twice the national average, according to the Insurance Research Council.
In 2000, before the law went into effect, 26.3 percent of New Mexico drivers were uninsured. In 2008, a year before Richardson left office, that number had jumped to 29.5 percent, making the state number one in the country for uninsured drivers. By 2009, the last year figures were available, the state dropped to second place with 25.7 percent of its drivers uninsured.
"If the policy is motivated by a lowering of uninsured motorists or decreasing accidents, I think it has had an insignificant effect," said J. Tim Query, Ph.D, Associate Professor of Risk Management and Insurance at New Mexico State University. "Being one of only two states, Washington being the other, that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a state-issued driver’s license increases the probability of fraud."
Query said he was aware of cases where vans of undocumented Polish immigrants from Chicago were brought to New Mexico to fraudulently obtain a license.
"It's a tough problem to tackle because you just don't know who is driving uninsured," said Patrick Schmid, Ph.D., researcher, Insurance Research Council. "There isn't any direct information who is and isn't an undocumented immigrant in this data."
Schmid said there are periodic fluctuations in the data that has caused the figures to rise and fall more because of the economy rather than immigration status.
"Fatalities have dropped in New Mexico, but they have also dropped nationwide, which includes 48 states that do not allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses," Query said. "What little accident data I’ve seen doesn’t specifically point to the driver’s license policy as a reason for any positive trends."
An estimated 49,000 undocumented immigrants reside in New Mexico, and since the law went into effect some 80,000 licenses have been issued to foreign nationals.
Query said it is almost impossible to determine what percentage of drivers are undocumented and that New Mexico's high uninsured rate may be more directly related to its high level of poverty and unemployment rather the licenseholder’s immigration status.
As opposition continues to simmer around the state to repeal the law, little of the debate has anything to do with insured drivers.
Incumbent Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, says she wants to repeal the law, citing concerns about fraud, human trafficking, organized crime and national security concerns.
State Rep. James White, also a Republican, supports Martinez and has voted twice to repeal the drivers license law saying it encourages further illegal immigration into the state.
"The law was originally designed to increase the number of insured drivers and there really is no evidence that has happened," White said. "We've opened the border further to encourage people to come here for drivers licenses."
But though Martinez has garnered some support to overturn the law, she continues to struggle with the state senate.
For State Senator George Munoz, a Democrat, the law is about more than just insuring motorists.
Resigned to the fact there will always be illegal immigration, particularly in his border state, Munoz contends it is better to know who is here rather than force the undocumented deeper underground.
“The governor is still going to push to repeal, but this is a total humanitarian issue,” Munoz said. “The majority of these people are coming here for a better life to support and feed their families.”
Munoz supports a Utah-style policy where a drivers permit is given the applicant that is only recognized in that state and cannot be used as a form of identification for air travel alleviating national security concerns.
State Senator Michael Sanchez, also a Democrat, has voted repeatedly against repealing the law, saying it has law enforcement benefits but the issue is highly politicized.
"It is definitely a wedge issue for some to score political points," Sanchez said. "Not all uninsured drivers are undocumented immigrants—some are people who were born and raised here."