- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Congressional negotiators yesterday agreed to an $82 billion bill to fund the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that also includes major border security measures and standards to prevent illegal aliens from obtaining or using driver’s licenses.

However, even as it tightens asylum rules, the bill eliminates caps on several categories for asylum, and increases caps on visas for non-farm temporary foreign workers. It also funds 500 new Border Patrol agents this fiscal year, topping the 210 additional agents President Bush asked for in his fiscal 2006 budget, and includes money for more detention beds than he requested.

“We have an urgent need when it comes to security on our borders. This is no imaginary threat. Al Qaeda will exploit each and every weakness in our homeland security, and border security is our Achilles’ heel,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, who pushed for the increases. “We can’t just wave a magic wand and have better security. It takes time to hire and train these new officers. We have to start now.”

The bulk of the bill — $75.9 billion — is dedicated to funding the war on terror, while $656 million goes to aid victims of the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean tsunami and $4.2 billion is part of a foreign aid package.

But the biggest debates during the negotiations erupted over non-defense issues such as immigration and political issues like whether to shut down an independent counsel’s investigation.

A vote in the full House is scheduled for tomorrow, while the Senate is expected to consider the bill next week.

Both chambers are certain to pass the measure, despite objections from Democrats that it ignores Senate-passed provisions protecting military reservists’ pay and protests from a broad range of interest groups that oppose the immigration-related restrictions.

“This measure will not make us safer. Rather, it offers a dangerous detour that will accomplish nothing in terms of safety, and diverts us from the task of enacting comprehensive immigration reform,” the American Immigration Lawyers Association said yesterday.

But backers have said it would deter a September 11-style attack.

“Those murderers chose our driver’s licenses and state IDs as their forms of identification because these documents allowed them to blend in and not raise suspicion or concern,” said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Mr. Sensenbrenner sponsored the immigration security provisions as part of the Real ID Act, which passed the House in February.

Those provisions were added to the spending bill in the House, though the Senate never voted on them. The agreement yesterday preserves most of the original House provisions, including a waiver of laws to complete a section of border fence near San Diego and new driver’s license standards that would require that any ID used for federal official purposes be available only to people residing legally in the United States.

The 10 states that offer licenses to illegal aliens wouldn’t be forced to change their policies, but those licenses would have to note that they cannot be used for “federal identification or any other official purpose.”

The original House asylum provisions have been tweaked, though they still allow judges leeway in determining the credibility of witnesses, which Mr. Sensenbrenner and his supporters had sought. An original provision setting up a bond system for release of detained illegal aliens was dropped after complaints that it would lead to civil rights abuses by bondsmen.

The bill also increases or provides exemptions to several immigration and temporary foreign worker caps. It exempts foreign employees returning to a previous job from the 66,000 annual cap on H-2B non-farm temporary workers — which had been sought by the summer hospitality industry and seasonal industries such as crabmeat pickers in Maryland and Virginia.

The measure also eliminates several caps on asylum seekers, including a 1,000-per-year limit on those seeking asylum from coercive family planning policies, such as China’s one-child policy.

Republican negotiators rejected a Senate-passed amendment that would have ended the independent counsel’s investigation of former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, but accepted an amendment that requires federal agencies to include a disclaimer on video press releases noting that they were prepared at taxpayer expense.

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