The House yesterday passed a bill to clamp down on illegal aliens’ access to driver’s licenses and judges’ ability to deny asylum, after adding a provision to make sure that more of the illegal aliens ordered to be deported actually are sent home.
It marks the first foray into immigration issues for the new Congress, and the crackdown drew bipartisan support, passing 261-161, with 42 Democrats joining 219 Republicans in favor of it. Eight Republicans voted with 152 Democrats and the chamber’s lone independent against it.
The bill, called the Real ID Act, would prevent the federal government from accepting state-issued identifications if the state makes them available to illegal aliens. About a dozen states allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, and although the bill does not force them to change, it creates a strong incentive to do so.
The bill also limits some asylum claims and gives judges more leeway to deny others. It also removes the environmental block that is preventing completion of a 14-mile section of U.S.-Mexico border fence near San Diego.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, failed to persuade senators to accept the provisions in the September 11 commission intelligence-overhaul bill that passed in December.
But he won a promise from House Republican leaders to bring the bill for another vote this year.
As President Bush calls for passage of a broad immigration package that includes legal status for illegal aliens now in the country, Republican leaders tried to separate yesterday’s debate, arguing that it was about border and homeland security.
“This bill finishes the work of the 9/11 commission by implementing their recommendations on how to crack down on terrorists’ ability to game our system and secure admission to this country for nefarious purposes,” said Rep. David Dreier, California Republican and chairman of the House Rules Committee.
But Democrats said Republicans were slicing the issue too finely.
“Most of the issues raised by the proponents of this bill are not about border security; they are immigration-related issues that need to be discussed in the context of broad immigration reform,” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. “Unfortunately, proponents of the Real ID bill are not seriously considering the complexities of our immigration system, the needs of our businesses and our responsibilities to American and immigrant families.”
Mr. Bush announced this week that he “strongly” supports Mr. Sensenbrenner’s bill, and House Republican leaders have promised to attach it to the first “must-pass” piece of legislation that comes through the chamber, which most likely will be the emergency spending measure for the Iraq war. But Senate Republicans appear to be wary of that approach.
In the House, Republicans were able to use the rules of debate to prevent a broader fight over immigration policy, but that approach could not happen in the Senate.
In a voice vote yesterday, the House adopted an amendment to crack down on illegal aliens’ ability to avoid a deportation order.
Many are released on their own recognizance and then never show up to be deported. The amendment requires that such an alien post bond or that a judge certify in writing that the alien is not a flight risk or a threat to national security.
Republicans pointed to a federal government report that said only 13 percent of the aliens who judges order to be deported actually leave the country.
But several Democrats said the system of bonds and bondsmen reminded them of the language in the fugitive slave laws, which allowed agents to recover slaves who had escaped to northern states.
“The truly frightening part about this legislation is it smacks of that,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Texas Democrat.
Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, said the provision will “endanger civil rights and create fear in the immigrant community.”
Democrats also challenged the asylum changes in the bill, which would overturn several decisions from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that make it more difficult for a judge to deny an application. The 9th Circuit covers 11 states and territories, including California.
“The logic seems to be if you keep out every asylum seeker, including legitimate victims, than the system can’t be abused,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat.
He said the examples of past abuses stemmed mostly from before 1996, when the law was changed to tighten the system.
“This section is not about protecting our borders; it is about xenophobia and sending victims back to their torturers,” Mr. Nadler said.
But Republicans said terrorists and would-be terrorists have tried to gain access to the United States through the asylum system, and the bill would change that.
“This bill brings back sanity to the asylum laws by overturning rogue precedents from the 9th Circuit,” Mr. Sensenbrenner said.
One Republican said the bill’s success was driven in part by constituents who supported the provisions and had wanted them included in the intelligence overhaul bill that passed in December.
Rep. J. Randy Forbes, Virginia Republican, who voted against the intelligence bill because it lacked the provisions, said at first, he thought his constituents might be angry, but their reaction was the exact opposite.
“I have never had a bill, as long as I have been in Congress, where more people called and said ‘Thanks for what you did on that bill,’” he said.