By Damien Willis
Las Cruces Sun-News
LAS CRUCES — Trying to stay one step ahead of the uncertain future surrounding New Mexico’s compliance with the federal REAL ID Act, scores of Las Cruces residents showed up at a Nov. 28 Passport Fair at the Post Office downtown. Many had questions that remain unanswered, but said they were beginning the passport process as a precaution.
The law, passed by the U.S. Congress in 2005, enacted the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation that the federal government “set standards for the issuance of sources of identification, such as driver’s licenses.” The law applies to IDs that are required to access federal facilities and, ultimately, to board commercial flights.
New Mexico, which has received numerous extensions by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, was denied an additional extension by the department in October. In order for New Mexico to become REAL ID compliant, the state legislature must repeal a decade-old law that allows undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses. A bill that would have brought New Mexico into compliance with REAL ID requirements passed the state Senate in 2015, receiving bipartisan support with a 35-5 vote, but the bill failed to pass in the House of Representatives.
Gov. Susana Martinez has long pushed to repeal the provision allowing for undocumented immigrants to legally obtain driver’s licenses. However, she has recently begun signaling that she may be open to a compromise to bring the state into compliance under the REAL ID act.
When DHS denied New Mexico’s latest request for an extension in October, residents were sent scrambling to secure alternate forms of identification — primarily passports.
Streamlining the process
In response to the growing demand for passports, nine New Mexico Post Offices around the state have begun hosting Passport Fairs, offering customers the opportunity to get passports, passport photos and passport cards without requiring an appointment.
Bryan Hulbert, of Las Cruces, heard about the Passport Fair and decided to take advantage of the opportunity to get his passport.
“It seemed convenient,” Hulbert said. “And it was. It didn’t take nearly as long as I thought it would—maybe an hour, even with the long line.”
Hulbert said that, with the amount of travel he does throughout the year, he decided a passport would be a wise idea.
“That’s part of why I went ahead and got it, because I know that New Mexico is one of several states in that predicament,” Hulbert said. “That way, if I do need to fly, I don’t run into that problem. I have a backup, besides my license.”
Natalie Goldberg, of Las Cruces, took advantage of the Passport Fair to renew her expired passport. With the uncertainty surrounding New Mexico driver’s licenses, she said she needed to make sure her passport was up-to-date.
“I came in earlier this week to get my passport renewed, and they told me about this Passport Fair,” Goldberg said. “I have to travel, domestically, for work. But I have to be able to go when I need to go.”
In a recent guest column for the Albuquerque Journal, Philip McNamara, assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs for DHS, stated that the department is “in the process of scheduling plans for REAL ID enforcement at airports and will ensure that the traveling public has ample notice — at least 120 days — before any changes are made that might affect their travel.”
Beginning Jan. 10, New Mexico residents will need to show an alternative form of ID when visiting federal facilities, nuclear power plants and military bases, McNamara said, advising New Mexicans to check with the facility in advance to see what further identification might be required. McNamara also indicated that DHS is willing to work with New Mexico, and “to grant an extension upon taking the necessary steps,” should lawmakers pass a bill to bring the state into compliance.
No changes in identification requirements are planned for White Sands Missile Range, according to Erin Dorrance, the installation’s chief of public affairs.
“White Sands Missile Range continues to accept New Mexico driver licenses as an acceptable form of identification for access to the installation,” Dorrance told the Sun-News Friday. “Once the ID is presented, our installation police will run a background check on the individual before allowing them access. This is the procedure for all visitors to the installation.”
However, Dorrance added that security protocol at the Missile Range is passed down from the Department of Defense, and that there is no way of knowing when and if it might be changed.
At El Paso International Airport, the story was very much the same.
“We have not received any information about that to date,” said Violet Atilano, a Transportation Security Administration employee. “However, I can’t speak to what may happen a week or a month from now.”
Calls to the TSA’s national headquarters were not returned Friday afternoon.
Senate Majority Leader Michael D. Sanchez (D-Albuquerque) has said that he is confident a REAL ID compliant bill will be introduced and passed again in the Senate during the 2016 legislative session, which begins Jan. 20.
“I would encourage members of the public and media to contact my Santa Fe office or visit the following links — http://www.tsa.gov/travel/security-screening/identification and http://www.dhs.gov/real-id-public-faqs — if they have any questions about REAL ID,” Sanchez stated in a news release. “New Mexicans deserve accurate information about this policy issue, and I am committed to supplying accurate information to New Mexicans and the press.”
On Monday, New Mexico’s Catholic bishops said they hope a proposed compromise among state lawmakers will continue to allow immigrants suspected of being in the U.S. illegally to obtain driver’s licenses and also make the state compliant with REAL ID requirements, according to the Associated Press.
“We pray that this compromise will become law so all eligible residents can drive to complete the daily tasks of making a living, getting children to school, and participating in our communities,” said the statement, written on behalf of Archdiocese of Santa Fe Archbishop John Wester, Las Cruces Bishop Oscar Cantú and Gallup Bishop James Wall.
Among Las Crucens, reaction to the state’s REAL ID non-compliance is mixed.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous that we now have to purchase a passport. It’s expensive,” said Rose Vargas. “What about those who can’t afford it? What happens when they need to get into a federal building or military installation?”
“If New Mexican citizens will be required (to get) a passport because of what our state government has done, (the government needs) to pay for them,” said Debbie Tirado. “They are not cheap, especially for an entire family. I hope they resolve this before it comes to (having to get) passports.”
Luis Guerrero said that he plans to get a new passport — but that’s mostly because his is expired.
“I also have a lot of family in Mexico and I try to visit every other year if I am able to afford it, so I need my passport for that,” Guerrero said. “I also think if it is what the law requires, then why fight it?”
For those interested in getting a passport, the U.S. Postal Service will be hosting Passport Fairs at the Anthony and Sunland Park Post Offices on Sat., Dec. 5, and again at the Downtown Las Cruces Post Office on Sat., Dec. 12. Passport Fairs are from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The cost of a new passport book for first time applicants age 16 or older is $135. For a passport card, which can be used to access federal facilities and for domestic travel under the REAL ID guidelines, is $55. The U.S. Postal Service will provide photo services for an additional $15.
For more detailed information about passport fees, visit travel.state.gov/passports.
Damien Willis can be reached at (575) 541-5468 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @damienwillis.