Congressional negotiators agreed Monday to measures that would discourage states from issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, tighten asylum requirements and complete the border fence between California and Mexico, sources involved in the talks said.
The agreement by House and Senate negotiators made it all but certain that the measures would become law.
The driver’s license provision would, for the first time, set national standards for the state-issued documents. The key standard would require every applicant for a driver’s license to prove legal residency in the United States.
If a state opted not to comply, its driver’s licenses, even those issued to citizens and legal residents, would not be recognized as valid for federal identification purposes -- such as boarding an airplane or opening a bank account. As a result, most states would probably adopt the new standards.
Under the legislation, driver’s license applicants would have to take more information with them to motor vehicle offices. They would be asked to show birth certificates, a photo identification, proof of their Social Security number and a document with full name and home address. It was unclear how the legislation would affect renewal of licenses for citizens and legal residents.
The negotiators also agreed to a provision that supporters said would keep terrorists from using asylum laws to gain entry to the United States. The revisions would require asylum seekers to offer more proof that they were fleeing persecution and would limit their right to judicial review if their petition were rejected by immigration officials.
The border fence provision would speed completion of a 3.5-mile gap in the fence between San Diego and Tijuana. The Senate stripped similar provisions from a bill last year overhauling the nation’s intelligence community. This year, the House sought to ensure adoption of the provisions by attaching them to the $80-billion-plus emergency spending bill that is devoted largely to covering the ongoing costs of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The spending bill is considered “must-pass” legislation, and it is expected to be adopted by both chambers later this month.
The Senate version of the bill did not include the immigration-related provisions, collectively known as Real ID. But on Monday, House and Senate lawmakers crafting the bill’s final form agreed the provisions would be part of it, according to the sources privy to the talks.
The sources would comment only on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the negotiations.
But Jeff Lungren, spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), said Monday that the congressman was “optimistic that Real ID will be included in the final bill.”
Lungren said that the provisions would “plug holes” identified by the commission that investigated intelligence and security failures before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“The bottom line is [the measures] will take a strong step toward bolstering our homeland security,” Lungren said. “It will address a number of vulnerabilities.”
The House’s position got a boost last week when the Bush administration urged House and Senate negotiators to include the provisions in the emergency spending bill.
But a coalition of immigrant rights groups, religious organizations and others said the provisions -- rather than increasing security -- would make the nation’s roads less safe. Illegal immigrants would continue to drive, they say, but would avoid the license tests designed to ensure their competency as motorists.
The driver’s license issue has figured prominently in California politics in recent years.
In 2003, as then-Gov. Gray Davis was fighting to avoid being recalled from office, he signed into law a bill to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. But after Davis lost the recall and Arnold Schwarzenegger was picked to replace him, the state Legislature repealed it at the new governor’s urging.
A bill to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants has been introduced in the state Senate this year, but has not come to a vote.
In the negotiations over the bill in Congress, a compromise was reached that would include guidelines for states that wish to create a two-tiered system for issuing driver’s licenses, according to those close to the talks. Such a system would allow illegal immigrants to obtain licenses to drive, but those documents would not be valid for purposes of federal identification, the sources said.
But this agreement was of little solace to opponents of the immigration-related measures, such as the American Civil Liberties Union. Tim Sparapani, the group’s legislative counsel, predicted that Americans would be shocked by the breadth of the driver’s license proposal that takes effect three years after the bill’s passage.
The legislation says that “beginning three years after the date of the enactment of this act, a federal agency may not accept, for any official purpose, a driver’s license or identification card issued by a state to any person unless the state is meeting the requirements.... “
Sparapani said that “citizens of states that haven’t made the changes won’t be able to board a flight, take a train, enter a federal courthouse or even go to a Social Security building” if they use their state-issued driver’s license as identification.
For those states that do comply, he said, “this really does, for the first time, create a national identification card and allows every single American to be tracked by all the states and the federal government.”
The provision that calls for completing the fence between San Diego and Tijuana has been opposed by environmentalists. They say filling that gap in the fence would damage an estuary that teems with plant and animal life.
Advocates for completing the fence say that the gap allows smugglers, illegal immigrants and potential terrorists to cross more easily into the United States.
The provision in the spending bill would give the secretary of Homeland Security the authority to override state and local governments to complete the fence.
The sources close to the talks said that while negotiators reached agreement on the immigration provisions, they remained at loggerheads over another matter -- the insistence of some senators that the spending bill legislation include tens of millions of dollars to pay for special projects for their states.
House negotiators said they were insisting that the Senate drop most of its projects, arguing that they were not emergencies.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld had urged Congress to finish its work on the spending bill last week.
In a letter to Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) -- one of the key negotiators over the bill -- Rumsfeld said the military was hard-pressed to stretch its funds to cover essential costs for troops, such as food and equipment. He noted that President Bush had sent the spending bill to Capitol Hill in February.
“I am advised that the Army’s operating funds will be exhausted in early May,” Rumsfeld wrote. He added that the Army already had been forced “to slow spending” because the bill had not yet been passed.
On Monday, Lt. Col. Roseann Lynch, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the Army “has already restrained supply orders and implemented local hiring freezes” to cope with the situation.
But she added: “Even with these and other measures, the Army will not be able to make its mid-May civilian payroll. We are a nation at war. Our first priority is to ensure the men and women in uniform have all they need to fight and win.”