Legislators Work Out Real ID Measure

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Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are hammering out language that will affect immigration and national security policy. One provision of a spending bill for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will call for stricter documentation in applying for a driver's license.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Later this week, the House of Representatives will vote on a spending bill to pay for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's almost sure to pass, and it's all but guaranteed that it will contain an unrelated provision: It would set national standards for states issuing driver's licenses. Backers say it is a national security measure that would tighten controls on the borders. As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, opponents argue it will place a burden on states and serve as a national ID card.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

The provision is known as the Real ID Act, and is being pushed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner. It calls on states to require driver's license applicants provide proof of citizenship, a valid green card or a pending asylum request. Residents of states that don't go along with the new provisions won't be able to use their driver's licenses to board aircraft or enter federal buildings. Rosemary Jenks of Numbers USA, a group that wants to tighten immigration laws, says the measure is vital to national security.

Ms. ROSEMARY JENKS (Numbers USA): It's necessary because we know that there are potential terrorists in the United States right now. And we know that by issuing them driver's licenses, we are handing them the very tool that they need to practice, to finance, to get everything prepared for an attack on the United States and then to carry out that attack.

NAYLOR: The commission investigating the 9/11 terrorist attacks found a number of the hijackers had valid driver's licenses even though their visas had expired. The Real ID Act seeks to prevent that. Driver's licenses would expire when a person's visa does. Jenks says the measure will also make it harder for illegal immigrants to get around.

Ms. JENKS: Once a person gets a driver's license in the United States, that person has just about everything they need to get any job, to enter buildings, to gain access to pretty much anything in our society.

NAYLOR: Backers hope the inconvenience will serve to deter illegal immigrants.

Mr. MARSHALL FITZ (Director, American Immigration Lawyers Association): I think that that is one of the most preposterous of the claims by proponents of this legislation.

NAYLOR: Marshall Fitz is a director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which opposes the act.

Mr. FITZ: The fact that Congress is changing the laws to say that you can't get a driver's license is going to have no bearing on whether or not someone who is trying to feed their families and has no recourse other than to go where there is opportunity here in this country. The fact that he's not going to be able to get a driver's license when he gets here--that is not going to be a deterrent in any way, shape or form.

NAYLOR: The measure before Congress also includes a requirement that the Border Patrol finish construction of a fence along the border with Mexico south of San Diego, and limits court challenges to the project. It also puts new restrictions on who can apply for asylum.

Attaching these provisions to a bill funding the troops in Iraq makes it virtually impossible to stop. Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander is one of a bipartisan group of senators who has objected to the procedure.

Senator LAMAR ALEXANDER (Republican, Tennessee): This isn't the right way to do this. We ought to stop this here, look at the whole immigration issue, secure the border, create a legal status for people from Mexico and other places working here and then enforce the law. We're just slapping this on to a bill that's going through that's supposed to be for troops and it's halfhearted and not the way we should be doing business on such an important issue.

NAYLOR: But the measure is all but certain to win approval in the House in the next few days, and the Senate is likely to pass it next week. Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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