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New Mexico's Hispanic governor battles over rules of the road
February 26, 2011 / 4:57 PM / in 7 years

New Mexico's Hispanic governor battles over rules of the road

SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - The nation’s first female Hispanic governor has angered many Latinos with a proposal to repeal a New Mexico state law allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

Newly-elected Governor Susana Martinez, a Republican who ran on a promise to get tough on illegal immigration, this week added fuel to the fire by using leftover campaign funds to pay for a radio ad urging support for her repeal efforts.

“New Mexico is attracting people from around the world -- China, Poland, Brazil,” the political spot says. “But they’re not coming to ski, or for the balloon fiesta. They’re illegal immigrants coming for drivers licenses.”

The ad, which aired throughout the week, urges listeners to call their legislators to complain.

The ad itself says the message was paid for by the Martinez gubernatorial campaign, which claimed a cash surplus of about $500,000 in its latest finance report.

The liberal advocacy group Common Cause and the immigrants’ rights organization Somos un Pueblo Unido seized on the radio spots to accuse Martinez of violating campaign spending laws. The groups this week filed complaints with New Mexico’s attorney general, the secretary of state and the Santa Fe district attorney.

State law generally limits the use of campaign funds to spending for campaign costs, campaign debts, donations to the state budget or charities, or to “expenditures of legislators that are reasonably related to performing the duties of the office held.”

The attorney general’s office is reviewing the complaint, a spokesman told Reuters. Bureau of Elections director Bobbi Shearer said her office also would look into the matter.

A spokesman for the governor, Danny Diaz, dismissed suggestions that the radio spots were unlawful.

“It’s ironic that a radical special interest group that believes illegal immigrants have a right to New Mexico’s driver’s licenses does not believe the governor has a right to free speech,” Diaz said. “We disagree.”

Martinez, a former prosecutor born to Mexican-American parents in Texas, made cracking down on illegal immigration a centerpiece of her campaign for governor. She said one of her top priorities was repeal of a law passed under her Democratic predecessor, Bill Richardson, that allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

While her stance irked many voters of Mexican descent, Martinez drew enough support among conservatives in the Latino community to win election in the heavily Hispanic state.

Still, her push for measures to outlaw driving privileges for illegal immigrants has failed to gain much traction in the Democratic-controlled state legislature.

Some law enforcement officials oppose repeal, arguing that to revoke driving privileges of illegal immigrants will mean having tens of thousands of motorists on the road without a license or insurance.

New Mexico is one of only three states that allow undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses. Utah and Washington are the others.

Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune

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