By Zelie Pollon
Santa Fe, New Mexico (Reuters) - A national Latino rights group filed suit on Wednesday to challenge an order by the state's Republican governor that may make it harder for illegal immigrants to keep driver's licenses in the state.
Republican Governor Susana Martinez's administration in July ordered the state to re-verify the physical residency of foreign nationals who hold New Mexico driver's licenses in order to get or keep their licenses.
Martinez, a former prosecutor who made a crackdown on illegal immigration the centerpiece of her election campaign, issued the requirement after the state legislature failed to ban licenses for illegal immigrants earlier this year.
The lawsuit filed by the Mexican American Defense Fund called the move, designed to cut down on fraud, unconstitutional and a waste of state money.
"This is a program that unfairly singles out certain individuals based on whether they were born in the United States," said MALDEF attorney Martha Gomez, who filed the suit on behalf of New Mexico legislators and state residents.
"This program was never authorized, ratified or even considered by the New Mexico legislature, which is solely empowered to create the law and policy of New Mexico."
New Mexico is one of three states, including Utah and Washington, that allow illegal immigrants to lawfully obtain driver's licenses provided they show proof of residency.
The other states bordering Mexico -- Arizona, California and Texas -- do not allow it.
A spokesman for the New Mexico governor described the lawsuit as an effort to stop the state's work in confronting "the identity theft and fraud that exists due to the issuance of driver's licenses to illegal immigrants".
Earlier this month, an Albuquerque woman was indicted on charges of creating fraudulent residency documents to help illegal immigrants obtain licenses in the state.
"In the absence of the legislature acting to put an end to this dangerous program, the governor has the responsibility to identify and attempt to curb the fraud that is inherent in it," Martinez' spokesman Scott Darnell said.
RESIDENCY CERTIFICATION PROGRAM
When Martinez' efforts to repeal the license law instituted under her Democratic predecessor failed, she vowed to continue the fight.
In July, she announced that the state would begin a "Residency Certification Program" to make sure foreign nationals applying for licenses did in fact live in the state.
Under the new program, the state is sending notices to a random sample of 10,000 foreign nationals who obtained New Mexico driver's licenses. The recipients have 30 days to schedule in-person appointments with a Motor Vehicle Department in Albuquerque or Las Cruces to verify their residency.
Wednesday's lawsuit was filed against the secretary of the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department, which is requiring the Department of Motor Vehicles to recertify residents under the program. It asks that the department be banned from enforcing the requirement.
According to the program's figures, the latest certification data shows that 31.5 percent of all letters mailed out have been returned as undeliverable.
About 20 people who scheduled appointments brought documents that showed they were using fake or potentially stolen Social Security Numbers, Darnell said.
Democratic state Rep. Miguel Chavez, who helped pass legislation allowing the licenses, said that since the law's implementation in 2003, New Mexico had dramatically improved its level of insured motorists.
"The focus then, as it is now, has always been public safety," Chavez said. "As a form of ID, it's the best way to track violations, warrants and court orders."
He and other lawmakers said their proposals to create stronger anti-fraud mechanisms or strengthen residency requirements had been rejected by the governor.
New Mexico's population of about 2 million is 45 percent Hispanic. More than 85,000 foreign nationals without a Social Security Number have obtained New Mexico driver's licenses since 2003.
Martinez has vowed to further resurrect the license issue at a special legislative session this September.
(Edited by Karen Brooks and Cynthia Johnston)