House Republicans Hold Border Security News Conference
Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images
Republican House leaders hold a news conference on border security on Wednesday.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 2/10/2005 3:44:57 PM ET 2005-02-10T20:44:57

The House voted Thursday to put pressure on states to stop issuing drivers’ licenses to foreigners who are illegally in the United States. Ten states now do so.

By a vote of 261-161, the House passed the bill sponsored by Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R- Wisc., that would make driver's licenses unacceptable for federal identification purposes, such as boarding a commercial air flight, unless the issuing state required the applicant to show proof of American citizenship or proof of being a non-citizen who is legally in the United States as a permanent resident or applicant for asylum.

Voting to pass the bill were 219 Republicans and 42 Democrats (mostly from the South and Midwest); opposing it were 152 Democrats, eight Republicans (including three GOP Latino members from Florida) and Vermont independent Bernie Sanders.

House Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Davis, R- Va., said, “We don’t tell states who they can issue drivers licenses to, that’s up to them. We do say if you want to use it for federal purposes such as getting on an airplane, you have to show what’s called ‘legal presence,'”

The legislation would also make it more difficult for foreigners who arrive in the United States seeking political asylum to win their claims.

Another provision in Sensenbrenner’s bill would speed completion of a three-mile section of the fence at the U.S.-Mexican border near San Diego.

Not an immigration bill, leaders say
In a briefing for reporters Wednesday, Sensenbrenner and other GOP House leaders made great efforts to contend that their bill is not an anti-immigration bill, but rather a common-sense way of making it more difficult for would-be hijackers to board planes and for foreign terrorists to blend in to American society.

The Sept. 11 conspirators used American driver’s licenses, rather than their Saudi and other passports as identification when boarding flights in the United States because the driver’s license made them less conspicuous, Sensenbrenner said. He noted that 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta had a six-month visa but obtained a Florida driver’s license good until Sept. 1, 2007. Such disparities would be banned by Sensenbrenner’s bill.

“This is not an immigration issue, it is a national security issue,” said Davis.

“This is a border security bill,” said House Rules Committee chairman David Dreier, R- Calif. “We are clearly committed to dealing with the other aspects of immigration at a later point.” Dreier said, “I personally believe we need to have some kind of guest worker program and deal with the economic demand here.” The Sensenbrenner bill “in no way diminishes our commitment to dealing with the overall issue of immigration reform,” Dreier said.

Yet in its effects, if not in its intent, Sensenbrenner’s bill would likely put a damper on immigration and make life more difficult for illegal immigrants already in the United States.

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The long-running crusade by many Republicans, going back at least as far as California's Proposition 187 in 1994, to deter illegal immigration has been fundamentally altered by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Now illegal immigration, visa overstays, cross-border smugglers, and national security have increasingly become entangled issues. Concerns about terrorism make the Congress and the electorate even more willing to accept measures that will impinge on immigrants.

“The smugglers that move narcotics can just as easily move terrorists. It’s clear that this a national security problem,” said House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter, R- Calif., as he praised the border fence provision in Sensenbrenner’s bill.

The effort to deter illegal immigration has sometimes been at cross purposes with President Bush's outreach to immigrants, especially Latinos, through his proposed guest worker plan.

The Bush administration issued a statement Wednesday supporting Sensenbrenner’s bill.

National ID card?
The opponents of the bill include the American Civil Liberties Union which in a letter to members of Congress called the driver’s license provision an unfunded mandate on the states which “would further the growing trend, alarming to both conservatives and progressives, of transforming driver’s licenses into de facto national ID cards.”

The driver's license issue packs a political punch: one reason Democrat Gray Davis lost his seat as governor of California was his signing of a bill to allow illegal aliens to get drivers licenses.

Last September, Davis’s successor, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, vetoed a bill that would have permitted illegal immigrants to apply for California driver’s licenses. Proponents of the bill, such as California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, a Democrat, said it would have helped ensure that all drivers in the state were tested for ability to drive, were licensed, and carried insurance.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, several states including Arizona, Florida, Minnesota and Ohio, have already enacted legislation that connects expiration of an individual's driver's license to the expiration of his visa, if the person is a foreigner visiting the United States. Rhode Island and Michigan have passed laws that require driver's license applicants to submit proof that they are in the United States legally.

The NCSL opposes Sensenbrenner's bill. The group's leaders said this week the measure would "threaten to handcuff state officials with unworkable, unproven, costly mandates that compel states to enforce federal immigration policy rather than advance the paramount objective of making state-issued identity documents more secure and verifiable."

Also drawing fire from the ACLU and the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association is the asylum part of Sensenbrenner’s bill. The immigration lawyers’ group argues that asylum applicants “already undergo more probing security checks than any other applicants for admission to this country.” Sensenbrenner’s bill “would surely mean that deserving asylum applicants are returned to face the persecution they fled.”

Sensenbrenner said Wednesday his asylum provision is designed to remedy a decision handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit which “makes it practically impossible for an immigration judge to judge the credibility of the (asylum) applicant and the witnesses. …. The asylum reform provision in this legislation allows the judges to say ‘no’ when they’ve concluded that there is a fraudulent application.”

In fiscal year 2004, the government approved 10,613 applications for asylum, while denying 9,080. If granted asylum, a foreign citizen can become a lawful permanent resident after living in the United States for one year.

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