House Republicans approved a package of immigration-control measures yesterday that would make deportation easier, make political asylum tougher and exempt the federal government from environmental laws in building roads and barriers along U.S. borders.
The bill -- touted as a major anti-terrorism initiative -- is aimed at making it easier for authorities to keep illegal immigrants out, track down those in the country and hinder their travel. The measure would impose new requirements on states to seek proof of applicants' legal residence in issuing driver's licenses.
If the states do not comply with the new anti-fraud guidelines, driver's licenses issued in those states cannot be accepted as proof of identity for boarding airplanes, buying guns or entering federal buildings.
The bill would ask states to require a passport for any noncitizen to obtain a driver's license, whereas many states now accept documents that are easier to manufacture. The proposed legislation could have the effect of denying driver's licenses to millions of undocumented workers, according to experts.
Proponents say the bill would make it harder for potential terrorists to travel throughout the country and plot attacks.
"This will make it exceptionally difficult for anyone to use a fake I.D. for federal purposes," said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.).
But some civil liberties groups and other critics say the proposed standards would convert state-issued driver's licenses into national identification cards and lead to more unlicensed and uninsured drivers.
Called the Real ID Act, the bill is backed by the White House and has a favorable outlook in the Senate. House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the chief sponsor, blocked passage of major intelligence restructuring legislation late last year until the White House and GOP leaders promised early consideration of his measures this year.
The bill passed 261 to 161, with all but eight Republicans supporting it and all but 42 Democrats opposed.
The votes of House members from Maryland and Virginia broke along party lines, except that Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.) did not vote and Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) voted in favor.
During the floor debate, Sensenbrenner brandished a photo of Mohamed Atta, one of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers, and argued that the law could help head off attacks.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said the law would close loopholes that pose threats "to the security of our homeland and to our success in the war on terror."
However, Democrats said Republicans were relying on emotions in passing what they termed draconian new government powers.
"They used all the wedge issues to get this thing passed," Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) said after the vote.
About 40 states require applicants for driver's licenses to prove their legal residence. But the National Governors Association and the national group that represents state motor-vehicle administrators opposed the driver's license provisions as overly prescriptive, and civil libertarians complained about a provision that would help states share databases.
Another controversial provision would give the Department of Homeland Security new power to build roads and barriers along the border with Mexico, exempt from judicial review as well as environmental, conservation and labor laws.
That measure originally was offered to help the government close a three-mile gap in a 14-mile fence in the San Diego area, but opponents say it has broader implications for any road or barrier the government wants to build along the border with Mexico. The gap, known as Smuggler's Gulch, covers wetlands and an estuary, and officials want to complete construction of the fence without fear of litigation.
Senate Republican aides said similar legislation will be introduced in that body soon and that 50 to 60 senators support its passage.
House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) said the border-security bill would be followed by a broader revision of immigration laws over the next two years to include a guest-worker program, a goal of the White House.
The House-passed bill tightens the grounds on which foreigners can claim political asylum and expands the grounds on which a suspected terrorist can be deported. Human rights and some religious groups have asserted that the bill would severely undermine the government's commitment to protecting people who have fled persecution.