The Bush administration yesterday strongly endorsed a bill to crack down on illegal aliens' use of driver's licenses and tighten asylum and deportation procedures, giving the measure a boost as debate began on the House floor and in anticipation of a final vote today.
"The legislation tightens procedures for noncitizen entry into and presence in the United States, facilitates the building of physical barriers where appropriate to protect U.S. borders, and facilitates the strengthening by the states of the standards for the security and integrity of driver's licenses," the administration said in a statement of policy.
House Republicans said they expect the bill, sponsored by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, to pass the House today. Mr. Sensenbrenner said he has a commitment from House leaders to then attach the bill to the first "must-pass" piece of legislation to leave the House, which at this point appears to be the soon-to-be-submitted emergency-spending bill for the war in Iraq.
The key provision is the crackdown on illegal aliens' ability to obtain and use driver's licenses as identification.
About a dozen states currently allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses and the bill does not mandate that they change. But it says any ID used for federal purposes, such as boarding an airplane, must be obtainable only by someone lawfully present in the country.
Republican backers said the driver's license issue was a specific response to the September 11 terrorist attacks and to the call by the September 11 commission to crack down on licenses.
"Very simply, 19 terrorists had 63 driver's licenses. Driver's licenses allowed them to get money, to get transportation and to stage the attack on 9/11 on our country," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "It has been made very clear to the American people that we have a compelling reason to reform that defect in our system, and the polls I've seen have shown support for that reform cuts across America."
The bill also gives judges more leeway in denying asylum to applicants, eases the rules for deporting those linked to terrorism overseas, and completing the remaining 3 miles of a 14-mile section of the U.S.-Mexico border fence near San Diego that has been delayed by environmental concerns.
In objecting to the bill yesterday, Democrats keyed on the asylum provisions.
"If this measure becomes law, this will close America's doors to Cubans fleeing from their country, religious minorities attempting to escape religious persecution, women fleeing from sex trafficking, rape or forced abortions," said Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat. "Unfortunately in our history, there have been a number of examples of this overreaction in the past."
He compared the measure to what he said were other overreactions in the past: Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who "sought to expel the Jews from the South" during the Civil War and to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Democrats, joined by a large group of advocacy groups, said the bill is a piecemeal approach and should be scrapped in favor of a broad immigration-reform measure similar to what the president has proposed.
They also said Mr. Bush has shown he is not serious about border security by only funding in his new budget 10 percent of the 2,000 border patrol agents called for in the intelligence-overhaul bill that passed last year.
"The truth of the matter is Republicans are using national security as a facade to alienate hard-working, law-abiding and taxpaying immigrants," said Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, California Democrat. She said her family came to the United States seeking the American dream, and that she was "angered and outraged that under the guise of national security, the Republican Party is trying to punish those seeking the same dreams that my parents sought."
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Adm. James Loy told reporters Monday that the administration was trying to balance the Border Patrol's needs with those of other areas.
"It was simply recognized that the 210 [new border agents authorized under the budget] for this year is a reflection of millions of dollars of additional emphasis on that particular corner, and also recognition that we need to balance those things as we go on down the road with other priorities," he said.
But Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican and the chairman of the new permanent Homeland Security Committee, said there is enough money in the Homeland Security area of the budget to fund all 2,000 agents, as well as the increases to detention beds and interior enforcement officials last year's bill also called for.
Yesterday's debate turned harsh at times, with Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, calling some of the bill's supporters "immigrant haters."
That prompted a caution from House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, who said, "Using terms like immigrant hater does not help this debate. This is about border security."
In the statement of policy, the administration indicated its focus was not on illegal immigrants' use of the licenses, but specifically about terrorists' abuses.
The administration said it wants to allow for "biometric screening of individuals who cannot otherwise satisfactorily demonstrate citizenship or lawful immigration status."
"Biometric screening, which is applied to most entering classes of aliens through the US-VISIT program, would be a valuable tool in identifying possible links to terrorism."
The White House also said it plans to work with Congress to tweak some of the provisions in the bill, including "refinement to ensure consistency with foreign-policy priorities."
In its statement, the administration was silent on the border fence and deportation provisions, though it did say it supported the asylum provisions, with some tweaking.