Stateline Story

Arizona Immigration Law Roils New Mexico Governor's Race

Democrat Diane Denish Republican Susana Martinez
Democrat Diane Denish Republican Susana Martinez

SANTA FE, N.M. — When it comes to policy toward immigrants, New Mexico has taken a markedly different approach than neighboring Arizona. While Arizona has been both praised and derided for giving local police more power to enforce immigration violations, New Mexico has been far more welcoming, extending driver's licenses and even college scholarships to people in the country illegally.

But these days, immigration is looming about as large as it ever has in New Mexico politics, thanks to political winds blowing from the state next door. The first taste came in the run-up to New Mexico's June 1 primary when a border-county prosecutor, Susana Martinez, used a tough-on-illegal-immigrants message to help propel herself to the Republican nomination for governor.

What's still unclear in New Mexico, as in many states this election year, is whether the surge in interest on immigration will play the same outsized role in the general election as it did in the Republican primary.

"Immigration will be a bigger issue in New Mexico (this year) than it has been in the past," predicts Albuquerque pollster Brian Sanderoff. "But we're still not Arizona."

How the issue plays out in this year's elections could have far-reaching consequences, not just in the Southwest but in almost every corner of a country that has been seeing a huge jump in its foreign-born population, including a majority from Latin America. "America's going to become more Hispanic with every passing year," says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "How (political parties) deal with immigration will ultimately go a long way in determining which party prevails."

IN HIS OWN WORDS

Diverse viewpoints

Of course, the Hispanic population has been central to New Mexican politics since Spanish settlers first came to Santa Fe more than 400 years ago. Today, more than 40 percent of the state is Hispanic. But Latino voters here are hardly a monolithic bloc. Members of long-established families in the north often identify more with their ancestors from Spain than with recent immigrants from Latin America.

Further muddying the issue in New Mexico is the fact that both Martinez and John Sanchez, her running mate for lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket, are Hispanic. "The most important dynamic is going to be: Can the Republicans take advantage of having two Hispanics at the top of the ticket?" says Governor Bill Richardson, the Democratic incumbent, who is Hispanic. "That's probably never happened anywhere in the country."

Both Martinez and Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish, the Democratic nominee for governor, say the immigration issue is secondary to more pressing matters, such as creating jobs, improving schools and fighting corruption. But the differences between Martinez and Denish on immigrant-related topics are stark and keep resurfacing.

Both want to stop giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, but they differ on what should happen to those who already have licenses. Denish would let current license-holders keep driving. Martinez would revoke the licenses. Martinez wants to stop letting undocumented students get lottery-funded college scholarships; Denish would continue the program. And one of Martinez's first TV commercials against Denish accused the lieutenant governor of supporting a "sanctuary for criminal illegals."

The Arizona effect

As a political issue, immigration was fading until the Arizona Legislature passed its controversial bill in April. President Obama denounced the measure at a White House ceremony just hours before Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed it into law. Since then, the law has prompted debates — especially among Republicans — about whether other states should follow suit.

Nevada's Brian Sandoval, who is Hispanic, supported the Arizona law in his successful bid to unseat Governor Jim Gibbons in the Republican primary. And in California, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman won the GOP nod in this year's governor's race after tangling with Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner on immigration. Poizner supported the Arizona law and wanted to curb state benefits for undocumented residents. That stand helped Poizner surge in the polls briefly, but Whitman, who called for a "better way" of dealing with border security than Arizona's approach, easily won the primary.

In New Mexico, Martinez used immigration to attack her leading opponent, former New Mexico Republican Party chair Allen Weh. Martinez's ads touted her prosecution of criminals from Mexican drug cartels and attacked Weh for his support of a bill in Congress that critics say would give illegal immigrants amnesty. Sanderoff, president of the Albuquerque-based Research and Polling, Inc., says the strategy won Martinez votes among the Republican base. "She made a retired Marine colonel look soft," he says.

In an interview with Stateline , Martinez said the new Arizona law focused voters' attention on how New Mexico handles illegal immigration. "I'm not sure that everyone in New Mexico knew really that there were driver's licenses being issued to illegal immigrants or were aware that there were sanctuary policies," she says.

Immediately after Martinez's primary win, Denish announced that she, too, wanted to repeal the state law letting illegal immigrants get driver's licenses. It was a major policy break from Richardson, her two-time running mate whose once-high popularity in the state has waned.

The lieutenant governor says the issues that get lumped under the term "immigration" really are two separate sets of issues: policies toward immigrants and border security. Denish says the governor can improve border security, by sending resources such as the National Guard to the area as Richardson has done repeatedly, including once as recently as March. But she says immigration policy generally should be set by the federal government. "We don't need checkerboard immigration reform in this country," she told Stateline . "We need a comprehensive policy."

The Hispanic vote

Even as Denish tries to defuse the controversy in New Mexico, Democrats nationally argue that the harsh stances taken by Republican candidates against illegal immigration during the primaries could hurt the GOP in the fall. The Democrats hope the Republicans' positions will convince Hispanic voters to support Democratic candidates.

"The Republicans are going to regret making this an issue," says Nathan Daschle, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. He says many Republicans understand the risk involved, too. Daschle points to the example of Texas Governor Rick Perry, who positions himself as a conservative on almost every issue but still doesn't support the Arizona law.

Harvey Yates, the chairman of New Mexico's Republican Party, bristles at the idea that focusing on immigration will turn Hispanics away from Republican candidates. After all, he says, the Republican candidates in New Mexico for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and a congressional seat all are Hispanic.

"You think those folks are going to have trouble talking about immigration?" he asks.

Tags: Immigration