When Arizona legislators introduced SB 1070 earlier this year, their intention was to crack down on illegal immigrants in the state. The law requires police to check the immigration status of anyone in custody. Since the controversial law took effect, many of the toughest measures have been temporarily blocked by a federal judge.
One of the key goals of the law was to encourage undocumented immigrants to self-deport to their home countries. But while people are leaving Arizona, many may be moving to other states, including neighboring New Mexico.
A 30-year-old woman from Guerrero, Mexico, did just that. Altogether she says 12 family members left Mesa, Ariz., about three weeks ago to move to The South Valley, a primarily Latino neighborhood in Albuquerque.
“We were told that the economy was better. And here [in New Mexico] they weren’t pursuing immigrants,” she says. The woman, who asked not to be identified because she is in the country illegally, says her family felt confined in Arizona for fear of immigration raids.
“In every direction, we couldn’t go out. We couldn’t even take the kids to eat,” she says.
First Indicator: Surge In Driver’s Licenses
Since arriving in New Mexico, her husband has already obtained a New Mexico driver’s license and a job. He’s one of more than 11,000 immigrants who have come to New Mexico this year and legally received a driver’s license.
State law allows applicants to use a Mexican matricula (ID card) to get a license. Since Arizona passed SB 1070 in the spring, New Mexico has seen a surge in new licenses issued to people using matricula cards.
“Basically, the applications that we’ve accepted have more than doubled in the last six months,” says Michael Sandoval, the director of the New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division.
He estimates that the division usually issues between 8,000 and 10,000 of these licenses in an entire year.
New Mexico is one of three states that do not require proof of legal residence to get a license. According to an Associated Press analysis, similar surges in applications have also been seen in recent months in the two other states: Utah and Washington.
School Enrollment: More Evidence?
In New Mexico, other public agencies are also noting new residents.
Clerks at state human services offices are reporting an uptick in inquiries from people who are relocating from Arizona seeking federal benefits like food stamps.
Monica Armenta, the spokesperson for Albuquerque Public Schools, says they’ve received an unusual influx of new students – many from Arizona. “In previous years, we pretty much have had flat enrollment. But what we’re seeing this year is at least a 1 percent growth in enrollment,” Armenta says.
The Albuquerque public school system is the largest in the state. It has about 800 new students this year. Officials at school systems in Los Lunas and Santa Fe have also noticed a change in enrollment.
But neither the human services office nor the school systems can say for sure how many of the new arrivals are in the country illegally, where they’re from or if they’re here because of Arizona’s crackdown.
And in any case, it’s not anything like caravans moving east – it’s more like a trickle, says Darren White, the director of public safety for the city of Albuquerque.
“By fear of being arrested, folks did come to New Mexico, but I don’t think it’s the mass exodus that many believed,” he says.
White is concerned, though, that New Mexico’s traditionally soft stance on immigration may make it too much of a magnet. “What I think makes New Mexico attractive is the fact that we do as a state provide driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, and I vehemently disagree with that policy,” he says.
And he’s not alone.
The politics of immigration are changing the debate here, especially in the race to see who will replace current Gov. Bill Richardson.
Republican Susana Martinez went on the attack against Democratic Lt. Gov. Diane Denish during their first debate Aug. 19. “The policies of this administration are making this state more attractive for illegal immigrants by providing driver’s licenses and by providing sanctuary policies that exist throughout the state,” Martinez said.
Both candidates have vowed to roll back the law, should they be elected governor.
Back in The South Valley, the woman who moved from Arizona with her family feels safer as she gets ready to drive back to her new home in the neighborhood.
“It’s a lot better here than in Arizona,” she says. “You don’t have to be looking in the mirror to see if the police are coming.”