MVD policy on “illiterates” and Navajo-only speakers generates outcry

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Courtesy Deb Haaland for Lt. Gov Facebook Page

Update, Thu. Oct 30 (4:35 pm): MVD clarified it’s policy on non-English speakers and shared the original directive with the public an employees.

New Mexico MVD Clarifies Policies on Non-English Speakers 


Late today, New Mexico’s MVD clarified it’s directive to employees engaged in processing applications for licenses and ID cards after part of a directive posted in a Farmington office led employees to believe that non-English, and specifically Navajo, speakers were to be denied assistance with applications for licenses or identification cards.


While the email summarizing the department’s policies for non-English speakers was poorly worded enough to allow staff in one office to interpret the directive narrowly and to apply the reference to illiterate applicants to all non-English speakers, MVD’s quick action to clarify the rules and policies to the public and staff is the right thing to do.


We are confident that public attention to the issue will lead to the removal of the misleading directive from the employee area in the Farmington office and lead to better training to ensure that all applicants have access to translators and assistance they need to apply for services, whether applicants are seeking licenses needed to drive or identification cards to access services or voting for those who registered by mail.


Original Story: Oct 29, 2014: New Mexico’s Motor Vehicle Department recently directed employees to stop assisting Navajo language speakers with applications for licenses and identification cards, dubbing them “illiterate” in an email directive to staff.

Acting on a tip from a citizen concerned about newly registered Navajo voters being denied access to identification cards necessary to vote, ProgressNowNM obtained a copy of a new MVD directive posted in a Northwest New Mexico office.

MVD email directive.  Copied as posted in the office.  (right side of the original was trimmed from the posting)

MVD email directive. Copied as posted in the office. (right side of the original was trimmed from the posting)

Saying, “We are not able to issue license (sic) for illiterates” MVD’s regional director tells staff to end the practice of assisting applicants with completing the state’s license or ID card forms.

But state law doesn’t have a language requirement for applications.

Inquiries by phone to the office revealed that staff were previously able to assist Navajo-language-only applicants in completing the basic form which requires only a name, address and basic information. No more. Applicants seeking a driving permit must still pass a driver’s test to prove they can properly interpret signs and safely operate a vehicle.

Pressed for information about the policy change, staff confirmed that they were ordered to sign a printed copy of the email -also posted in the office – as confirmation of having read and understood the new policy.

Patrick Davis of ProgressNowNM, a state-based civic advocacy group:

This is incredibly shameful and disrespectful to our Navajo and other tribal neighbors.

Traditional Navajo speakers are hardly illiterate. Their unique language helped to save our country and millions of lives in the service of code talkers during World War II. To tell these people that they have to learn English to obtain the basic identification now needed to vote or apply for a basic license is indefensible.

Many of these applicants have driven for years on the Navajo nation but find a state license serves as a passport to off-reservation health care, veterans’ services and community connections.

New registrants in New Mexico are required to present certain types of identification if registering by mail. State issued driver’s licenses and ID cards are the most commonly used.

The US Department of Justice has jurisdiction to investigate and intervene in state actions that disenfranchise Native American voters.

The MVD’s directive would apply not only to Navajo speakers, but to all of New Mexico’s tribal speakers.   The Secretary of State recognized eight Native American languages in the state.

Despite historical challenges to the franchise, New Mexico ballots include the state’s first statewide Native American candidate, Deb Haaland, Democratic candidate for Lt. Gov.

Courtesy Deb Haaland for Lt. Gov Facebook Page

Courtesy Deb Haaland for Lt. Gov Facebook Page

War on Licenses
As a candidate for governor, former security guard and prosecutor Susana Martinez made New Mexico’s drivers license policy a top, and divisive, issue.  The state’s practice of issuing licenses to foreign nationals was unique at the time and was cited as misguided policy that would lead to massive voter fraud by undocumented immigrants and widespread security concerns in an age of terrorism.  While Martinez has fought time and time again to repeal the law authorizing those licenses, 13 other states have since followed our lead in opening permits and identification cards to all residents, regardless of immigration status.

There is no evidence that any of the issued cards have been used to facilitate voter fraud.

Yet, unable to repeal the law, Martinez and her administration have used administrative tools to widely restrict access to IDs.  These administrative policies, often enacted without public notice or input, also restrict access to necessary permits and IDs for other residents whose rights to vote are not questioned.

Navajo Language Takes Center Stage in Navajo Elections
Requirements that candidates for the office of nation president be fluent in Navajo have created a firestorm of controversy and legal wrangling ahead of next month’s planned nation elections.

From the New York Times:

The Navajo Nation Supreme Court ordered election officials on Thursday to postpone the tribe’s presidential election and remove one of the candidates from the ballot because he failed to prove he spoke the Navajo language fluently.

The decision was the latest twist in a drawn-out legal battle over the candidacy of Chris Deschene, which threatens to spiral into a crisis for the nation’s largest Indian tribe as different branches of its government wrestle for control of the electoral process.

Mr. Deschene finished second in the presidential primary in August, earning a spot in the Nov. 4 runoff. But several losing candidates challenged his eligibility for the office, claiming that he did not speak fluent Navajo, which is a requirement for the president under current tribal law.

Last month, the tribal Supreme Court upheld the language requirement, saying it was crucial to maintaining Navajo culture, and ordered Mr. Deschene to take a fluency test.

He refused, saying he was proficient in the language and objecting that the test had never been used before and was illegitimate. Tribal officials then disqualified him from the race, and the court on Thursday ordered him removed from the ballot and replaced with the candidate who finished third in the primary. Continue reading the main story

Navajo Speakers
The US Census Bureau estimates that more than 169,000 people in the US speak the Navajo language at home.  It also estimated that as many as 1-in-5 Native people over 65 spoke only their native language.


Note: this story has been updated to reflect MVD’s response.