The fight for immigration "reform"

By Julia Scott
Published February 10, 2005 11:05PM (EST)

Despite the protests of Democrats and a range of groups from Amnesty International to the ACLU, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday that will deny drivers licenses to illegal immigrants and mandate a uniform federal ID for all 50 states. The bill passed in the House with a decisive two-thirds majority, though in its current form it's not likely to make it through the Senate.

Introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-Wis.), the chairman of the House judiciary committee and a longtime proponent of immigration "reform," the Real ID Act is supposed to prevent would-be terrorists from boarding planes with fraudulent documents, like the hijackers of 9/11. In recent weeks, Sensenbrenner has been at the forefront of conservative Republicans who oppose President Bush's more accommodating guest-worker initiative.

It's not at all clear that the legislation will prove effective in stopping terrorists. But what it will almost certainly do is turn DMV workers into de facto immigration officials, analyzing all kinds of visa forms for proof of residency. Currently, 11 states have no such requirements in place for drivers licenses, and it's unclear where the funds would come from to get them up to speed. The prospect of piling on more red tape prompted the National Governors Association and DMV administrators to send a letter to House leaders calling the bill "a massive unfunded federal mandate," and asking them to "allow the provisions in the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004 to work" before imposing an additional bureaucratic burden on the states.

People for the American Way argues that the bill will do little to help prevent future terrorist attacks, pointing out that the 9/11 hijackers obtained their visas and licenses using fraudulent documents, and that future terrorists could do the same.

Opponents are also sounding the alarm over broader issues regarding civil liberties. The ACLU has expressed concerned with a provision in the bill that would create a database linking drivers licenses to immigration status, and connect the personal information of every driver in the U.S. to data banks in Canada and Mexico. And the legislation would also affect asylum applicants, forcing them to produce hard evidence of their persecution at home -- in theory to be obtained from the very government they fled.

Rep. Sensenbrenner maintains that his legislation is built on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. But the group September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows is disturbed by how the legacy of the attacks is being used. They voiced their opposition to the bill in a letter to lawmakers: "We are deeply troubled that 9/11 and the 'war on terror' are being used as a means to introduce legislation which stereotypes, dehumanizes, and unfairly targets immigrants."

Julia Scott

San Francisco-based freelance journalist Julia Scott writes about water and energy issues for various publications. She also covers the environment for Bay Area News Group, a chain of newspapers in Northern California.

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