New Mexico Voters Side With Strong Approach To Illegal Immigration

A recent poll by the Albuquerque Journal suggests that New Mexico voters support strong immigration policies, including recently implemented laws in Arizona, reversing New Mexico's policy of allowing driver's licenses to be issued to foreign nationals and a policy in Albuquerque which allows authorities to check the immigration status of all those booked into jail. Host Michel Martin will get some perspective from Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry on why New Mexicans are voicing their support for such strong immigration policies.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we'd like to take you out west to New Mexico, a state that in 2009 boasted the nation's highest percentage of Hispanic residents at 47 percent. So you might imagine that when it comes to some of the hot button immigration issues dominating the political landscape, you might expect New Mexicans to have some opinions of their own, and you would be correct.

And some of those opinions, at least according to a new poll by the Albuquerque Journal, might be surprising. For example, a city policy mandating immigration checks for anybody arrested for any reason has broad support. Eighty-four percent of those surveyed favored that policy including 79 percent of Hispanic residents.

To talk more about this issue and others, we've called the mayor of Albuquerque, Richard J. Berry. He took office only a short time ago in December of 2009 and he is enjoying one of the highest approval ratings of any Albuquerque mayor. Welcome to the program. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. RICHARD J. BERRY (Mayor, Albuquerque): Michel, it's an honor to be with you. Thank you.

MARTIN: So I just mentioned that this particular policy, making immigration checks mandatory for those arrested is quite popular. How long has this policy been in place?

Mr. BERRY: Michel, we've worked for about four months at the beginning of the administration. It's something we talked about during the campaign and we wanted to make sure we took our time to do it in a way that was well-crafted and reasonable. So it's been in place about - somewhere between four and five months at this point.

MARTIN: And why do you think it has won such broad support?

Mr. BERRY: When you start looking at crime statistics, no one suffers more from crime than the immigrant population. So what we said was several things. I wanted racial profiling out of the equation. I wanted to make sure that the Albuquerque police were doing the work of the Albuquerque police and we were not doing the work of federal immigration officials. And I think we accomplished both of those in a very pragmatic way, what we did...

We have what we call a prisoner transport center in Albuquerque. And anytime anyone is arrested, they go to the prisoner transport center. And what we did was we offered the opportunity to have immigrations and customs enforcement at the federal level, have a place there to do their work. And then we set the rule in place that says everybody that walks through the door, regardless of their nationality, regardless of the color of their skin, is going to go through the same process.

And I think when you couple all those together, what people in Albuquerque see is a public safety policy that keep our streets safe and not a idealistic immigration policy.

MARTIN: Well, you know, of course the - Arizona's immigration law has gotten a tremendous amount of attention across the country. And a majority of voters in New Mexico also support the law, but only 39 percent of Hispanics surveyed support that law in Arizona, compared to 79 (technical difficulties) who support Albuquerque's new policy. And I wonder why you think that is. What do you think the critical factor there is?

Mr. BERY: Well, I think the critical factor is that we did a good job of telling people and explaining and crafting a policy that's not an immigration policy, it's a public safety policy. And I think that may be really at the heart of it.

MARTIN: The Journal poll also took a look at a state law in New Mexico that allows foreign-born nationals the opportunity to hold a New Mexico driver's license. This law is fairly well disliked across the board. Seventy-six percent of whites surveyed, opposed the law; and 67 percent of Hispanics opposed the law.

Now, it's interesting because a lot of people consider this a public safety issue as well, but there just is a lot of antipathy toward this law and I'm just wondering what you think that means.

Mr. BERRY: Well, I actually came out in the legislature, and my run for mayor, as a fairly vocal opponent to this idea of issuing driver's licenses. So I would be certainly in the majority and would've been one of those folks that -am one of those folks that's in favor of New Mexico not doing that in the future.

We're one of the few states that does issue driver's licenses to folks that are here undocumented, or the classification that you're talking about. And I think there's other ways that we can keep, you know, the people can be responsible so that they have insurance. And so it's just - I don't think it's a good policy and I would hope that the next gubernatorial administration would stop that practice. I just don't think it's a good policy.

MARTIN: I don't know if you feel comfortable sort of offering guidance to your fellow public officials, but as you know, these issues are very difficult and they generate a lot of intense feeling on all sides of the issue. You know Arizona has been - a number of high profile celebrities have suggested that entertainers, artists, athletes boycott the state. Is there a - well, just some guidance that you would offer about how public officials going forward should address these issues. They evoke such strong feelings on all sides.

Mr. BERRY: They do. And I think that - I think, Michel, we have to separate several things. First of all, I certainly wouldn't advocate for a boycott for Arizona. The people of Arizona, the small business people, the people that work there, yes, they elected officials to go represent them at their state house. But boycotting a state over actions that was taken by a legislative body, I think it hurts the general population and it's not the way to go.

I think the real work is done when members, elected officials from both parties do get together. We certainly need immigration reform in this country. We can argue about the details of immigration reform and what that means. We can talk about amnesty and what is amnesty and what's not and what's a pragmatic approach.

But I think from the standpoint of a - as elected officials, and I try to do this as a mayor of Albuquerque and I tried to do it when I was in the legislature - let's have respect for each other. Let's have the conversation. Let's do our best to craft reasonable solutions together. And I think this country is really hungry for that type of governance, right now, and I'm glad for it.

MARTIN: You don't support boycotting Arizona, but what about the immigration law, do you support that?

Mr. BERRY: Well, as a mayor, I haven't - it has been on the news for so long, I haven't gotten to the point where I've studied the bill and read all the details of the bill and I always try to do my best to not comment till I've actually done that. So I will defer comment there. I simply, you know, want to make sure that I'm doing what I can do as a mayor of my city.

MARTIN: Mr. Mayor, with all due respect, I find it very hard to believe that you haven't read the Arizona bill, since it took four months to craft the measure and it was in place before yours was.

Mr. BERRY: What you need to understand is that we didn't, you know, we didn't craft - this is a policy in response to Arizona, we were working on this policy long before the Arizona 1070 made the news. And so we do our best to separate the Arizona, you know, legislation from what we did in Albuquerque.

It's just a situation where I think Arizona's responding to a crisis that they see that - the people around the country see that immigration reform needs to happen at the federal level and that it's something that's long overdue, and we just - I'm one of these people that would just advocate that Congress really early get after the issue and come to some solution that works for the nation. And I think you'd find people in both parties that would agree that something needs to be done at the federal level.

MARTIN: Mayor Richard J. Berry is mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, that state's largest city. He was kind enough to join us on the line from his office. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. BERRY: Michel, my great honor, thank you for having me.

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