NM faces class-action suit on denial of ID cards

Former Santa Fe Mayor David Coss speaks during an immigration rally in the Rotunda at the State Capitol last year. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE — David Coss says he was turned away repeatedly when he applied for a driver’s authorization card, even though he had the proper documents.

Now he’s the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit that accuses the state Taxation and Revenue Department of illegally denying driver’s authorization and other ID cards to New Mexicans who can’t or don’t want to provide the more onerous documents required for a full driver’s license.

Coss, a former mayor of Santa Fe, said employees at the Motor Vehicle Division improperly required him to provide a Social Security card, which he’d lost.

“Nothing I took to MVD was good enough,” Coss said in a news conference Monday. “I know I’m not the only New Mexican dealing with this nightmare.”

The Taxation and Revenue Department, in turn, described the lawsuit’s allegations as isolated examples and said that nearly 35,000 driver authorization cards have been issued since 2016.

“This is the latest in their long line of political stunts,” Benjamin Cloutier, a spokesman for the Taxation and Revenue Department, said in a written statement.

Coss is one of seven plaintiffs identified by name in the lawsuit, filed Monday in the state’s 1st Judicial District. Also named as plaintiffs are the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness and Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a group that advocates for immigrants’ rights.

They say Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration is improperly requiring too much documentation for people who want a driver’s authorization card or similar identification card — not a driver’s license that complies with the federal Real ID Act.

The suit also alleges the state has failed to notify people of their right to appeal if they are denied the driver’s authorization card or ID.

The litigation comes after Martinez and a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers agreed in 2016 to a compromise law creating a two-tiered licensing system for New Mexico drivers — one ID card that meets federal requirements, the other available to people with less documentation or living in the country illegally.

The second-tier option provides a driver’s authorization card or ID that cannot be used for federal purposes.

After winning election in 2010, Gov. Martinez repeatedly pushed to change a 2003 law that allowed people living in the country illegally to obtain a driver’s license. She had initially sought to repeal the law but later accepted the compromise legislation.

It was critical for public safety, Martinez said, to revise the 2003 law, which she and other opponents said made New Mexico a magnet for fraud.

“Our two-tiered compromise is a result of bipartisan legislation that ends the dangerous practice of giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and brings New Mexico into compliance with the Federal Real ID law,” Cloutier said Monday.

Supporters of the class-action suit said the 2016 compromise provided a way for homeless people, undocumented immigrants and others to obtain an ID they could use to work, rent a hotel room or open a bank account.

Denying access to those cards “really hits the most vulnerable in our community the hardest,” said Sovereign Hager, supervising attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

Gabriela Ibañez Guzmán, an attorney for Somos Un Pueblo Unido, said the group tried to work with the state to avoid litigation.

“Unfortunately, this administration from the very beginning failed to implement the law correctly,” said Marcela Díaz, executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido.

The lawsuit says the state Taxation and Revenue Department invented an extra requirement that isn’t outlined in state law — requiring applicants to “establish proof of identification number.” An “untold number” of people have been unlawfully denied the driver authorization cards and IDs, the suit says.

Coss said he wanted a driver’s authorization card, rather than a federally compliant driver’s license, because he believes the federal law is an overreach that infringes on people’s privacy rights, and he just wanted a card allowing him to drive.

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