San Diego Union Tribune

February 11, 2005

House OKs bill aimed at paring illegal immigration
Homeland security focus of legislation

By Jerry Kammer

WASHINGTON – Dividing largely along party lines, the House passed a controversial bill yesterday designed to curtail illegal immigration as a way to achieve greater homeland security.

The bill, which passed 261-161, would pressure states to deny driver licenses to illegal immigrants, make it easier to turn away some political asylum seekers and ease the deportation of suspected terrorists.

The measure would empower bounty hunters to go after immigrants who have defied orders of deportation and remove environmental barriers blocking completion of a triple fence along the U.S.-Mexican border near Imperial Beach.

The bill's author, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said the measure would help "prevent another 9/11-type attack by disrupting terrorist travel" and by making it more difficult for terrorists to take advantage of the asylum system or penetrate the border near San Diego.

"We must ensure that terrorists no longer can exploit these weaknesses," he said.

Passage in the House completes the first step in Sensenbrenner's strategy to ensure that the measure is considered in the Senate, where it faces longer odds.

As part of a deal last year with House leaders who wanted to strip the immigration bill from intelligence overhaul legislation, Sensenbrenner got a commitment that his bill would be included in the first essential legislation Congress considers this year.

Next week, Sensenbrenner plans to attach his bill to legislation that would provide funding for troops in Iraq, which almost certainly will be approved by the House. Then the combined measure will go to the Senate.

"That way, the Senate can't ignore it," said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors greater restrictions on immigration.

Even if the Senate jettisons the immigration provisions, as some consider likely, a House-Senate conference could reinstate them.

Called the "Real ID Act," the bill recently was endorsed by President Bush, who is pushing a sweeping overhaul of immigration laws, including a guest-worker program.

Before passing the Sensenbrenner bill, the House defeated an amendment sponsored by Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel. His proposal would have stripped out a provision granting authority to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to waive any laws impeding completion of the border fence near San Diego.

"My amendment was not about preventing the remaining three miles of border fence in San Diego from being built," Farr said, adding that he was trying to protect environmental laws and the review process they created.

Several human-rights and religious organizations criticized the provision in Sensenbrenner's bill that would give asylum judges broad discretion to deny asylum applications based on "the demeanor, candor or responsiveness" of anyone seeking refuge in the United States.

Sensenbrenner said the tougher asylum rules would help screen out terrorists. But the executive director of Amnesty International USA said they would "punish" people who "for reasons of culture, fear, desperation, confusion or trauma" are "unable to tell their full stories immediately and in a manner that is consistent with a distinctly American style of communicating."

Several Democrats took particular offense at a provision that would bar federal authorities from accepting a driver license for identification unless the state had first verified that the driver is in the United States legally.

Driver licenses from states that do not comply could not be used as proof of identity to board airplanes, enter federal buildings and buy guns. California and about 40 other states require applicants for driver licenses to prove their legal residence.

San Diego's House delegation split along party lines. Voting for the bill were Republican Reps. Duncan Hunter of El Cajon, Randy "Duke" Cunningham of San Diego and Darrell Issa of Vista. Opposing the bill were Democrats Bob Filner and Susan Davis, both of San Diego.

In the House, 219 Republicans and 42 Democrats voted for the bill while 152 Democrats, eight Republicans and one independent opposed it.

Krikorian, from the Center for Immigration Studies, described the bill as a start to clamping down on illegal immigration.

"It's not a silver bullet for immigration enforcement, but it's a small down payment on what has to be done," he said.

Angela Kelley of the National Immigration Forum called the Sensenbrenner bill "a distraction" from the simmering debate on revamping immigration laws.

"This is a lopsided and out-of-focus perspective the House has taken on how to deal with a broken immigration system," said Kelley, whose groups favors looser immigration restrictions. "If we can have a comprehensive reform package, we will be much closer to having a system where people can play by the rules and we can keep out those who want to do us harm."

Far from the raging debate over the Sensenbrenner bill, an article in the Mexican newspaper Milenio yesterday offered a different perspective. The paper noted that while the driver-license provision "has been seen by some Mexican political parties as an affront against Mexicans, in reality Mexico applies a similar requirement to foreigners who want to obtain driver's licenses."

»Next Story»