Monthly Article

New Mexico’s Passport

by Jerry Pacheco

If you are from New Mexico and have traveled internationally, you probably have had similar experiences to mine. When I lived in Mexico City in the 1990s, people would always ask where I was from and I would answer, “From New Mexico.” So often, the response was, “Oh yes, Nuevo Mexico is by Phoenix, isn’t it?” I usually would explain geography, but sometimes feeling saucy, I would say, “No, you’re thinking about Santa Fe, it’s right by Phoenix” – Santa Fe being more recognized than the state in which it resides.

When I traveled to Japan and landed at the Narita Airport. I commenced to clear Customs, made my declarations, and presented my passport. The Customs official looked at me, stared at my passport, and asked my nationality. I stated, “American.” She looked at me again and said in a quizzical manner, “New Mexico?” I said, “New Mexico, United States.”

She asked me what I was doing in Japan and I told her I was there on business. She then peppered me with a series of questions about the nature of my business, to the point I was starting to get a little agitated. I was asked to wait a minute and she called her supervisor over. I don’t speak Japanese, but in the midst of the conversation, I heard, “New Mexico”. The supervisor repeated, “New Mexico” and after several minutes of looking at my passport and more discussion, the Customs official finally stamped my passport and begrudgingly let me in the country. It was obvious that both officials were unfamiliar with New Mexico’s status as a U.S. state.

And these types of incidents don’t only occur internationally. Americans in other states have trouble with their history and geography when it comes to my state. For more than 20 years, New Mexico Magazine has collected anecdotes from New Mexican travelers to other states and published them as “One of Our 50 is Missing”, which can be found at: New Mexican citizens, as high as the governor, have experienced problems in attempting to buy tickets to the Olympics, reserving hotel rooms, or submitting college transcripts because fellow Americans did not know that New Mexico was a U.S. state.

And now, New Mexico is facing the ultimate showdown in how it is treated by its own federal government. In 2003, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, along with allies in the New Mexico Legislature, successfully supported and passed a law allowing undocumented immigrants the ability to obtain a New Mexico driver’s license. The logic was that by having a driver’s license, undocumented immigrants would purchase liability insurance for their autos and that the state would benefit by having fewer uninsured drivers on its roads.

Upon passage, the law became immediately controversial, with critics saying it rewarded breaking the law and that it would transform New Mexico into a destination for criminals bringing in undocumented immigrants to the state to obtain a license that could be used elsewhere. In fact, several people have been apprehended for doing this.

For the past couple of years, the federal government has informed New Mexico that it will be implementing tougher enforcement under its REAL ID Act, as pertains to what is accepted as official identification. Because of New Mexico’s policy, after a series of extensions, the federal government has formally notified the state that beginning January 10, 2016, its driver’s licenses will no longer be accepted as identification for admission to federal facilities such as national laboratories or military bases. New Mexicans will have to present a federally recognized ID, such as a passport. Eventually, New Mexicans will not be able to board commercial aircraft using their state-issued driver’s license either.

Maryland, Vermont, Connecticut, California, Illinois, Nevada, Vermont, Utah and Washington issue restricted licenses to undocumented immigrants. Since 2007, Washington, which like New Mexico issues licenses to undocumented immigrants without proof of their legal stay in the U.S., has begun issuing enhanced licenses that do comply with federal law. Washington citizens have the ability to convert their standard issue license to an enhanced one.

The federal notification has resulted in several outcomes. One is the heightening of differences between supporters of the policy and those that want to repeal it. The Legislature convenes for a 30-day session on January 19, and this issue promises to be a focus, albeit a controversial one, that will be followed nationally.

Another outcome is the rush by many New Mexicans to obtain their passports. Passport fairs are being held throughout the state in order to beat the January 10 deadline. Thousands of New Mexicans who work in federal facilities are in danger of not being able to get to their jobs without a passport before the deadline.

Perhaps even more important, is the feeling by New Mexicans that their treatment as under-recognized U.S. citizens is strengthened even more. While other states that could be affected by the READ ID act seem to be covered, only New Mexico stands alone. Now, when New Mexicans travel internationally, in addition to the sting of not being recognized as U.S. citizens abroad, we will have to prove our citizenship in our own country.