New Mexico governor loses bid to block licenses for illegals

SANTA FE, New Mexico Sat Mar 19, 2011 7:00pm EDT

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SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - New Mexico's newly elected Republican governor lost her attempt to deny driver's licenses to illegal immigrants on Saturday, when the bill died in the state Senate.

New Mexico is one of only three states to allow undocumented immigrants to receive driver's licenses.

The other states bordering Mexico -- Arizona, California and Texas -- ban the practice.

Governor Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor of Mexican-American descent, made a crackdown on illegal immigration a centerpiece of her campaign before her election in November.

"I will continue to fight to fulfill the promises I made to New Mexicans," she said on Saturday after the bill's defeat.

She added that her office was looking into administrative measures targeting the issuance of driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.

About 83,000 foreign nationals, including some legal residents, hold driver's licenses in the state. Martinez has called the practice of giving licenses to illegal immigrants "dangerous."

The bill to repeal the state's law giving licenses to illegals was approved in the state House of Representatives on March 4 by a vote of 42-28.

In the Senate, where Democrats hold a 27 to 15 majority over Republicans, lawmakers indicated they were more interested in toughening up the existing law rather than repealing it.

The Senate voted to require foreign nationals to renew their licenses every two years and extended a residency requirement for foreign nationals seeking a license to six from three months.

But those measures failed to be enacted when the House and Senate on Saturday could not agree on the amended bill.

Advocates for immigrants groups cheered the result.

"This goes to show that you come in with a radical, extremist agenda, you're going to get push-back because New Mexico is not a radical extremist state," said Marcela Diaz, head of immigrants rights group Somos un Pueblo Unido.

Some law enforcement officials also opposed the repeal, arguing it would lead to tens of thousands of motorists driving without licenses or insurance.

Under current law, license applicants must show proof of identity, such as a passport, birth certificate or license from another state. They also must present two proofs of residency.

The governor had poured leftover campaign funds into radio advertisements to press the issue.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Ellen Wulfhorst)

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