By Dennis J. Carroll
SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - Three leaders of a Chinese crime ring were indicted on Thursday as part of efforts by New Mexico to stop illegal immigrants from fraudulently claiming residency to get driver's licenses in the state.
The men were accused of running ads in Chinese newspapers in New York City promising New Mexico driver's licenses, according to the office of District Attorney Kari Brandenburg in Albuquerque. Arrests were pending.
The indictments of Gordon Leong, 23, Tin Cheung, 35, and Alex Cheung, 60, brought yet another sharp rebuke by Republican Governor Susana Martinez of the state's driver license system that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses.
"We have long known of fraud and abuse in our driver's license system and these latest indictments make it clear that we must address (the) problem," Martinez said.
"We are attracting criminals to our state who exploit our driver's license policy and threaten the safety and security of all New Mexicans."
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.
Some officials fear the state's lenient driver's license rules were making New Mexico a magnet for illegal immigrants from out-of-state seeking licenses unavailable to them in the states where they live.
Seeking to combat such fraud, Martinez's administration in July ordered the state to reverify 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.
But opponents have sued to block the recertification process, arguing the measure unfairly singles out individuals based on whether they were born in the United States.
The trio indicted on Thursday, who had been operating out of leased apartments in Albuquerque, are accused of securing driver's licenses for 62 illegal immigrants of Chinese descent, primarily from New York, for $1,500 each in 2009 and 2010, the District Attorney's office said in a statement.
Each defendant faces 386 counts including fraud, forgery and making a false affidavit. Tin and Alex Cheung were also accused of fraudulently notarizing residential and lease agreements for their customers.
The immigrants who participated in the scheme flew into Albuquerque from New York, obtained their driver's permits and left the state, the indictment says.
The ringleaders were accused of having the actual licenses mailed to an address in Albuquerque and then forwarded to their clients in New York. The state has canceled all 62 driver's licenses issued in the case.
In a similar case earlier this month, a grand jury indicted an Albuquerque woman on more than 300 felony counts of helping 43 illegal immigrants from Mexico obtain the licenses.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)