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New Mexico's Politics Rooted In History

Gabriel Sanchez
University of New Mexico
Gabriel Sanchez
New Mexico's Politics Rooted In History
To understand New Mexico's current political climate, you have to look into its past.

New Mexico is not really in play in this year’s presidential election. It’s expected to go solidly for President Barack Obama, but it still has the potential to take on a larger role in the national debate about immigration.

New Mexico is big and sparsely populated with only about 2 million residents. Almost half identified as Hispanic or Latino in the last census. Most are not new immigrants. That translates into a lot of eligible Hispanic voters, which is why Gabriel Sanchez has been all over the media lately, from the Economist to The New York Times.

"I probably average about four interviews a day, this close to the election," said Sanchez, who is an associate professor at the University of New Mexico and research director for the national polling organization Latino Decisions.

"Even through we’re not perceived as a battleground, we’re not seeing the candidates come in and pay us a lot of attention this election cycle," Sanchez said. "A lot of folks are still interested in what happens in New Mexico largely because we’re viewed as a microcosm of what the future is going to look like in the United States."

Other states with growing Latino populations might look to New Mexico for the future, but to understand politics today, you have to look into the past.

"Spain made a lot of cultural contributions," said Rick Hendricks, the New Mexico State Historian.

Many Hispanic families in New Mexico can trace their roots back for generations, sometimes all the way to Spanish colonization.

Hendricks says although cultural heritage is significant, this identity was influenced more recently by the Great Depression when people of Mexican heritage were targeted by the U.S. government.

"Many, many Mexican citizens and also people who were U.S. residents but of Mexican heritage were rounded up in Colorado and Texas and shipped back to Mexico," Hendricks said.

Latino citizens in New Mexico appear to have protected themselves at that time by saying they were Spanish, or Hispanos -- not Mexican. Yet these Hispanos continue to identify with more recent immigrants -- both legal and illegal -- in political debates.

"In general, New Mexico has been much more of a welcoming state, ready to compromise in various ways, where other states draw a very clear line between who's here with documents and who's here without and that the treatment of those people should be very different," said Christine Sierra, a professor of political science at UNM.

One big example: In 2003, New Mexico enacted a law that allows any immigrant to get a driver’s license. They have to prove residency, but not legal status.

But in recent years, the driver’s license issue has tested the idea of tolerance in New Mexico. Supporters say it’s good for public safety because all drivers can get insurance and be tracked by law enforcement. Opponents also say it’s a public safety issue because the licenses could be used for criminal purposes.

Christine Sierra
University of New Mexico
Christine Sierra

Republican Governor Susana Martinez has pushed hard to repeal the driver’s license policy in three legislative sessions, but Democrats who control the state legislature pushed back each time. In the past month, the driver’s license issue showed up in political ads.

One ad claims the licenses attract people from all over the world, "some who want to do us harm."

Marcela Diaz is Executive Director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, an immigrant rights organization in Santa Fe. She says New Mexicans are aware of how policies like the driver’s license repeal might impact anyone who looks like a Latino immigrant.

"We understand, particularly as Hispanos and Latinos in New Mexico, that a lot of this anti-immigrant sentiment, the anti-immigrant policies, really are not just about immigrants, it really is about a broader electorate," Diaz said.

Washington is the only other state that has a driver’s license policy like New Mexico. Utah offers a driver's card to immigrants without a Social Security Number. But California recently passed a law that allows young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children, and are now eligible for deferred action, to obtain licenses.

It’s expected that Martinez will once again revisit the driver’s license repeal here again in January.