New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez is one of the Republican Party's most prized ambassadors. She is female and Hispanic at a time when recruiting candidates like her is at the top of the Republican agenda.
But while she praised Republicans on Capitol Hill for seeking an overhaul of a "broken" immigration system, Martinez on Wednesday advocated the traditional view of her party's conservative base: secure the border above all else. Martinez also defended her proposed repeal of a state law that allows undocumented workers to obtain drivers licenses, an effort that has drawn angry protests from pro-immigrant activists.
"We always go to immigration as though it is the only issue Hispanic voters or candidates care about," Martinez said during a conference call with reporters as a co-chair of the Future Majority Caucus, a Republican initiative to elect minority officeholders at the state level. "We're not single-issue voters."
Martinez's status as a statewide Hispanic officeholder and border-state governor makes her a key voice in the immigration debate. While she urged Republicans to be "respectful," her caution regarding citizenship for illegal immigrants reflects her position in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, in which she bashed her chief primary rival for supporting "amnesty." The former Republican state party chairman, Allen Weh, had backed an immigration bill under President George W. Bush similar to the reforms under consideration in Washington: allowing undocumented workers to earn citizenship, establishing a guest worker program, and increasing border security.
"There's a lot of space between amnesty and even talking about deporting 11 or 12 million people," Martinez said Wednesday.
How the immigration debate plays in the coming months out could help determine whether Martinez rises to the top tier of potential presidential contenders in 2016. She is among an elite group of Hispanic Republican statewide officeholders elected in 2010 and 2012, along with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and New Mexico Gov. Brian Sandoval, who was also on the conference call Wednesday.
An Albuquerque Journal poll in September found that 69 percent of New Mexico voters approve of her job performance, making her one of the most popular governors in the country. "Governors like her are leading the Republican Party's resurgence," said Ed Gillespie, a former national party chairman, who is working with Martinez on recruiting minority candidates nationwide.
The 53-year-old Martinez gave one of the most compelling speeches at the Republican nominating convention, recalling her childhood in El Paso and immigrant parents' up-from-their-bootstraps story. As the nation's first female and Hispanic governor, Martinez described girls coming up to her in the grocery store and the mall. "They look and they point and when they get the courage to come up, they ask, "Are you Susana?" and they run up and they give me a hug," she said. "It is in moments like these when I'm reminded that we pave a path, and for me, it is about paving a path for those little girls to follow."
Months earlier, she was publicly critical of Republican nominee Mitt Romney for advocating "self-deportation" of illegal immigrants, and after he lost, she chided him again for suggesting Obama had won because he gave "gifts" to minority and young voters.
"I really want to emphasize that when we have candidates that are discussing the immigration issue, certainly we always have to have that conversation in a sincere manner," she said Wednesday. "Hispanics, like any other voters, can see through an insincere candidate just spouting rhetoric or when their tone is not being respectful."
Asked if depriving illegal immigrants of drivers' licenses would send a negative message to Hispanics, Martinez pointed to one survey that showed support for the repeal statewide and in the Hispanic community. "It's a public safety issue, not an immigration issue," Martinez said.
But another poll by Latino Decisions found only 21 percent of Latinos backed repealing the law, though a large majority back stricter requirements for getting the licenses. Illinois last month became the fourth state to allow illegal immigrants to drive, while California last year began offering licenses to young illegal immigrants whose deportation has been deferred by the Obama administration. Supporters say the licensing requirements will make the roads safer since so many illegal immigrants are driving anyway.
"The trend is in that direction, so I don't think repealing the law in New Mexico is going to endear Latinos to the GOP," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "When politicians are talking about immigration, unless they are talking about a path to citizenship, that's not a winning message."