By RUSSELL CONTRERAS
A former New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division employee wasn't allowed to speak Spanish to non-English-speaking foreign nationals seeking to renew their driver's licenses and was fired when she complained about discrimination against Latino immigrants, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed Thursday.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed the suit in Santa Fe on behalf of Laura Montano of Albuquerque. The 39-year-old lost her job "after she voiced objections to a number of unfair, improper and discriminatory acts, policies, and practices," the lawsuit said.
The firing violated the federal Whistleblower Protection Act, MALDEF said in the lawsuit. State officials, however, said Thursday that Montano was a temporary contract employee who was let go because of poor performance.
New Mexico is one of only three states — the others are Washington and Utah — where an illegal immigrant can get a driver's license because no proof of citizenship is required. However, Utah's permits cannot be used as government ID cards.
Gov. Susana Martinez has pressed lawmakers twice to repeal the law allowing those in the country illegally from obtaining state driver's licenses. The governor has said she wanted state lawmakers to revisit the issue during the next legislative session, which begins next week.
Thursday's lawsuit comes as state workers work to carry out a Martinez administration initiative to check residency requirements of some immigrants with New Mexico driver's licenses. A state judge has blocked the "Foreign National Residency Recertification Program" pending the outcome of another lawsuit brought by MALDEF that challenges the constitutionality of the program.
MALDEF staff attorney Rebecca Couto said Montano was told not to speak Spanish to foreign nationals or to translate English documents during interviews to prove residency requirements.
"Some immigrants would come in with huge files, sometimes 250 pages," Couto said. "She wasn't able to tell them which documents she needed, so they left without licenses."
Montano said she was a temporary employee who began working at the department in July and was hoping to gain a permanent job with the division.
"I quickly learned that the way the DMV was putting into practices the governor's residency recertification program made us treat certain groups of Mexicans differently," Montano said at a news conference announcing the lawsuit, which seeks back pay and damages.
Montano's account fits squarely with what Somos Un Pueblo Unido has been hearing from immigrants around the state, said Marcela Díaz, executive director of the Santa Fe-based immigrant advocacy group.
"We have known for a long time that this particular program was a farce," Diaz said. "It wasn't really meant to do anything other than forward a political agenda that includes taking away driver's licenses from immigrants who live and work and pay taxes in our state."
Montano worked on the residential certification program for around two weeks, said Demesia Padilla, cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department, which oversees the MVD. Bilingual documents and materials were used in the program, she added.
"She demonstrated poor work performance and unprofessional conduct that detracted from the professionalism that was a hallmark of the way the program was run — including our emphasis on bilingual materials, bilingual call center representatives, and bilingual employees at the recertification office," Padilla said in a statement.
Thursday's lawsuit contained factual errors and was filed by "a political special interest group advancing baseless claims in their quest to defend a policy of giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants that most New Mexicans find to be indefensible," Padilla said.
Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras.