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Judge blocks NM governor on immigrant driver licenses

SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - A New Mexico judge on Wednesday blocked a move by the state's Republican governor to make it harder for illegal immigrants to keep driver's licenses in the state.

Governor Susana Martinez's administration last month ordered the state to reverify the physical residency of foreign nationals who hold New Mexico driver's licenses in order to get or keep their licenses.

But District Court Judge Sarah Singleton in Santa Fe issued a temporary restraining order blocking the program, arguing in a brief ruling that "irreparable injury" would occur from "constitutional deprivations to the applicants."

Martinez, a former prosecutor who made a crackdown on illegal immigration the centerpiece of her election campaign, issued the requirement after a bill to ban licenses for illegal immigrants died in the state legislature earlier this year.

A number of U.S. states have passed laws to curb illegal immigration in recent years -- there an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States -- but have had key parts blocked by federal courts.

New Mexico is one of three states -- with Utah and Washington -- that allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses if they show proof of residency. Other states bordering Mexico -- Arizona, California and Texas -- do not.

Some officials fear the state's lenient driver's license rules were making New Mexico a magnet for illegal immigrants from out-of-state seeking licenses unavailable to them where they live. They say the measure would cut down on fraud.

Opponents of the recertification process, however, have argued it unfairly singles out individuals based on whether they were born in the United States.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which had sued to block the governor's move, welcomed the injunction as an important protection for the rights of all New Mexicans, especially those it said were unfairly targeted.

"MALDEF will continue to fight throughout this legal process to obtain a final end to this licensing scheme and to restore the rule of law," Martha Gomez, a staff attorney for MALDEF, said in a statement.

A spokesman for Governor Martinez said the restraining order was a "fairly standard" procedural step as the court examines the residency certification program.

"In the absence of the legislature acting to put an end to the program that provides driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, the governor has the responsibility to identify and attempt to curb the dangerous fraud and identity theft that is inherent in it," Scott Darnell told Reuters.

"The Governor continues to fight alongside the overwhelming majority of New Mexicans who feel that granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants is a dangerous policy that has led to fraud and abuse as nonresidents are trafficked or travel to New Mexico for the sole purpose of getting a driver's license and leaving," he added.

(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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