By RUSSELL CONTRERAS, Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who has drawn national attention and criticism from immigrant groups for trying to stop undocumented immigrants from getting driver's licenses, has acknowledged her paternal grandparents came to the U.S. undocumented.
"I know they arrived without documents, especially my father's father," the Republican said Wednesday in an interview in Spanish with KLUZ-TV, the Albuquerque Univision affiliate.
Reports about Martinez's grandfather coming across the border undocumented have surfaced numerous times over the past few years. The governor's office has largely dodged directly answering questions about the issue, saying Martinez was unsure of his status since he abandoned the family when her father was young.
Her comments Wednesday appeared to be the first time she has answered the question definitively.
Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell confirmed the news Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press, saying media reports citing U.S. Census data from 1930 showed Martinez's grandparents entered the country undocumented.
"The governor has no information to the contrary," Darnell said. "Neither the governor, nor her father, had a relationship with her grandfather. She never met him and didn't know him. He abandoned her father when her father was about five years old, leaving her father to be raised by extended family."
Martinez has made headlines for her push to repeal a state law that lets undocumented immigrants get a New Mexico driver's license. She has added the issue to the agenda for a special session on redistricting that opened Tuesday.
New Mexico is one of only three states – the others are Washington and Utah – where an undocumented immigrant can get a driver's license because no proof of citizenship is required.
In protests this week in Santa Fe, advocates and some religious leaders cited Martinez's family history as a reason the governor should drop her effort to repeal the driver's license law.
Martinez grew up in El Paso and is the nation's first elected Latina governor. She has called the issue around her family's immigrant past irrelevant, arguing immigration laws were different when her grandfather came from Mexico in the 1920s.
But Guadalupe San Miguel Jr., an author and University of Houston history professor, said immigration laws during the time Martinez says her grandparents came to the United States weren't much different than they are now. Those coming to the U.S. were subjected to a number of requirements if they wanted to stay legally, he said.
"What was different then was the lack of enforcement," San Miguel said. "The border patrol was created in 1917, and there were just a handful of border patrol agents. There was no way they could enforce the law."
San Miguel said because of the lack of enforcement Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans went back of forth between Mexico and the United States with little problems.
Lisa Y. Ramos, a Texas A&M University history professor, said most multigenerational Mexican Americans like Martinez have "at least one family member with an undocumented past" due to that free range of movement along the border in early part of the 20th century.
"But Mexican Americans weren't the only ones who have this undocumented past," said Ramos, who is writing a book on the Mexican-American civil rights movement. "A lot of other multigenerational Americans do, too, like Italian Americans."
In fact, then-Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., acknowledged in 2007 during a debate over a failed immigration bill that his mother was an undocumented immigrant from Italy and was briefly detained by federal agents during World War II when he was a child. She eventually became a U.S. citizen.
But Ramos said the irony about Martinez's past is that she might not be governor of New Mexico today if her grandparents hadn't made the decision to enter the U.S. the way they did, when they did.
"She wouldn't be there if her grandfather, who was undocumented, hadn't come," Ramos said.
Associated Press writer Jeri Clausing contributed to this report.