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Some fear law would create national ID card
WASHINGTON -- Congress is poised to pass a law that would make sweeping changes to the nation's system for issuing driver's licenses by imposing stringent requirements on states to verify the authenticity of birth certificates, Social Security cards, legal residency visas, and bank and utility records used to obtain a license.
House Republicans attached the bill to a must-pass supplemental spending package for troops in Iraq without first putting it through the usual legislative scrutiny of hearings and debate. Should it emerge intact from House-Senate negotiations over the spending package, it could be law next month.
Touted as an antiterrorism measure, the ''Real ID Act" would also overturn laws in nine states that allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. If a state does not comply with any provision of the law, its residents would no longer be able to use their driver's licenses for federal identification purposes, such as for boarding a plane.
The law, some say, would effectively turn the new driver's license into a national identification card. Its chief champion, House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, says the measure would help prevent terrorists from fraudulently gaining official documents that would allow them to enter the country and move freely.
Another set of provisions would significantly raise the standard of proof that asylum applicants must meet when claiming that they have been persecuted on ethnic, religious, or political grounds. It would also grant greater discretion to Homeland Security officials to reject asylum seekers and curtail the ability of appeals courts to issue stays of deportation orders and review rejected cases.
Terrorists have ''used almost every conceivable means of entering the country," Sensenbrenner said in a statement provided by an aide. ''They have come as students, tourists, and business visitors. They have also been [legal permanent residents] and naturalized US citizens. They have snuck across the border illegally, arrived as stowaways on ships, used false passports, and have been granted amnesty. Terrorists have even used America's humanitarian tradition of welcoming those seeking asylum. We must plug these gaps."
But many critics of the Real ID Act say that it goes too far and that its language is riddled with problems that might have been corrected through the normal legislative review process.
''This bill has not received a single hearing in either chamber of Congress, so the challenges it presents for states have never received any attention," said Cheye Calvo of the National Conference of State Legislatures. ''It does much more than just deny driver's licenses to illegal immigrants."
State legislators and governors say that the Real ID Act would lead to horrific delays at motor vehicle bureaus, that it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars more than Congress thinks, and that it would impose an unrealistic three-year deadline for having the verification system in place.
Moreover, civil libertarians argue that by creating uniform national standards for driver's licenses and requiring states to pool driver information in a national database, the bill is a back-door move to creating a national identification card, which they oppose on privacy grounds.
And immigrant advocates fear the asylum changes are too draconian and will hurt people with legitimate claims of persecution.
But Sensenbrenner is pushing hard to keep the measure on the final Iraq spending bill, and his opinion carries special weight in Congress. Republican leaders promised him last December that the Real ID Act would get a quick hearing in 2005 after he agreed to remove it from a major intelligence overhaul bill that the Bush administration needed to pass.
Moreover, political observers say the Bush administration is unwilling to antagonize Sensenbrenner because, as Judiciary Committee chairman, he will hold sway over President Bush's proposal to reform the immigration system by establishing a system of guest worker visas.
''They're going to stick it on the supplemental, and it's going to stay on there," Senate minority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said yesterday. ''It's a terrible piece of legislation. . . . They put it on a supplemental, which they knew you couldn't stop. I've had a senator come to me and say, 'We're going to filibuster this.' I said, 'Get real. It's not going to happen. It's a defense bill.' "
Six Republican senators last week expressed similar concerns when they signed a letter asking Senate majority leader Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, not to let the Real ID Act appear in the final bill. They were led by Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, a lawmaker close to evangelical Christian groups who are particularly concerned about the asylum provisions.
''Legislating in such a complex area without the benefit of hearings and expert testimony is a dubious exercise and one that subverts the Senate's deliberative process," said the letter, which was also signed by Republicans John McCain of Arizona, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, John Sununu of New Hampshire, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, and Richard Lugar of Indiana.
Jeff Lungren, a Sensenbrenner spokesman, yesterday rejected the notion that the bill could use further debate, arguing that the policy proposals contained in the Real ID Act have been public since Sensenbrenner tried unsuccessfully to include them in the 2004 intelligence overhaul law.
''Since that [intelligence] bill passed about five months or so ago, this issue has continued to be at the forefront," Lungren said. ''Just because some senators have chosen not to address it and to ignore it doesn't mean that we don't need to have these provisions and bolster our border security now."
Cory Smith, who has been tracking the asylum provisions for Human Rights First, called Lungren's comments ''disingenuous."
''I'm sure at some place somewhere years ago something about asylum was brought up, but there were no hearings on this," he said. ''There has not been careful consideration of these serious changes to asylum law and immigration policy."
Calvo and Lungren also sparred over how much the driver's licensing provisions would cost.
Lungren pointed to a $100 million estimate by the Congressional Budget Office. But Calvo said the real amount is more likely to be between $500 million and $700 million when the cost of such items as new equipment to tap into national databases is included.
Tim Sparapani, ACLU legislative counsel, said the Real ID Act's rules would result in a de facto national identification card because it would require states to pool driver data in a national database.
''When you condition travel on an identification card and create an internal registry of citizens and a way to track them, that is entirely contrary to most Americans' understandings of the way their country works and should work," Sparapani said.