In a move that could put him at odds with President Bush, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee introduced legislation Wednesday that would effectively deny driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, tighten requirements for political asylum and complete the border fence between California and Mexico.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) said the measures would help secure the nation from attacks like those carried out by Al Qaeda on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He unveiled his legislation shortly after Bush, at a White House news conference, reaffirmed that immigration reform was one of his legislative priorities this year.
Bush has said that he intends to work for passage of a guest-worker program that would allow millions of undocumented workers to apply for temporary legal status. Sensenbrenner, however, is focusing on law enforcement. He said that Congress may be too busy with the president’s other ambitious legislative goals to tackle comprehensive immigration reform this year.
“We have to deal with the immigration issue,” Sensenbrenner said at a news conference Wednesday. When this would occur, however, “is difficult for me to answer. If you look at what is on the plate of the Judiciary Committee, we are going to be plenty busy with other priorities, a lot of which are the priorities of the White House.”
At the White House, the president said Wednesday it should be possible to recognize that “people are coming to our country to do jobs that Americans won’t do,” and, at the same time, protect the borders. But, he said, any revision of immigration law should “make sure that we don’t disadvantage those who have stood in line for years to become a legal citizen.”
“I’m looking forward to working with people of both parties on this issue,” Bush said.
The different emphases by the president and the chairman of one of the House’s most powerful committees reflect divisions among Republicans about how to fix the nation’s immigration system. The White House has taken no public position on Sensenbrenner’s legislation, but when he included its provisions in the House’s version of the bill overhauling U.S. intelligence last year, Bush urged him to drop them to win the bill’s passage by the Senate.
Sensenbrenner indicated Wednesday that his priorities may differ from those of the president, and that Congress may not have time to deal with immigration reform this year.
With an estimated 8 million to 12 million immigrants living in the United States illegally, Republicans are split between those who believe that reform must include a plan to give many of them at least temporary -- and perhaps permanent -- legal status and those who oppose any legalization and advocate restricting legal immigration.
Some Republicans have said that they did not speak out against the president’s guest-worker program before the November elections out of loyalty to him; but they now feel free to oppose a program that their constituents view as amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Sensenbrenner’s bill drew immediate criticism from immigrant rights advocates, who said that its provisions were anti-immigrant.
“None of the provisions that are in the bill will make us safer,” said Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Denying licenses to undocumented immigrants will “make our roads less safe,” Appleby said, because many will drive without a license or insurance.
Appleby said that tightening asylum criteria by requiring a person to prove that they were persecuted in their home country and allowing immigration judges to reject an application if it was determined that the applicant was not credible “could lead to the rejection of valid claims.”
Thousands of such claims -- often made by people fleeing political, religious or ethnic persecution -- are accepted each year by U.S. immigration officials.
Sensenbrenner’s approach “is sort of a shotgun approach ... which will hurt a lot of innocent people and not necessarily protect us from the threat of terrorism,” Appleby said.
The provisions Sensenbrenner introduced Wednesday passed the House last year as part of the chamber’s version of intelligence reform.
The Senate, however, balked at including what Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), author of the Senate intelligence reform bill, said were measures so controversial that they threatened to torpedo the legislation in the Senate. Sensenbrenner refused to back down. At one point, it appeared that his insistence on including the provisions would kill the entire bill.
Ultimately, the White House secured enough support from House Republicans to ensure the bill’s passage, even without Sensenbrenner. But the House leadership promised the chairman it would attach the excised provisions to the first piece of legislation this session that both chambers were expected to pass.
Sensenbrenner expects that after the House votes on his legislation, it will be attached to a larger bill that can more easily pass the House and the Senate. That may be the $80 billion in emergency funds the White House intends to ask Congress to authorize next month for war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sensenbrenner said he already had the support of 115 House members for his bill, but its fate in the Senate remained uncertain.