What started out as border security measures in an Iraq-Afghanistan spending bill became immigration legislation as lawmakers added new visas for foreigners and did away with some asylum limits.
House and Senate negotiators reached agreement Tuesday in the final $82 billion bill devoted primarily to paying for military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House could take it up later this week, but the Senate won’t vote until after it reconvenes May 9.
Originally, the House pushed for uniform requirements for driver’s licenses, toughening of asylum laws and authorizing the completion of a fence across the California-Mexican border.
Those measures survived negotiations despite widespread opposition in the Senate. As the bill made its way through the process, it grew to provide 10,500 visas for Australians and up to 50,000 visas that went unused between 2001-04 for nurses or their family members.
“The shortage our hospitals are facing is coming close to epidemic proportions,” said Chris Paulitz, spokesman for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. “Americans are not getting the health care they deserve but are dependent on. We limited this to 50,000 existing visas not being used to be used for nurses.”
Exemption for seasonal workers
In addition, the bill will exempt from the annual 66,000 ceiling on H2B visas returning seasonal workers, effective Oct. 1 through Oct. 1, 2006. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., pushed for the measure to provide crab pickers and oyster shuckers for the seafood industry in her state.
Judy Golub, senior policy and outreach director for American Immigration Lawyers Association, said many provisions in the bill had no other way for Congress to address them or should have been addressed years ago. The provision for seasonal workers, for example, will help businesses temporarily, “but isn’t a fix.”
“It’s a weird way to do immigration,” Golub said.
The new federal standards for driver’s licenses and other border security measures were attached to an earlier House-passed version of the bill by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
Another provision, backed by the White House, dealt with people granted asylum. Currently, 10,000 people who have been granted asylum can apply for permanent residency each year. The provision eliminates that restriction.
More than 186,000 people who have been granted asylum have pending applications for permanent residency, said Bill Strassberger, Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman.
Dropping some limits on asylum
Lawmakers also agreed to a proposal by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., to drop a limit of 1,000 a year on the number of people granted asylum from countries with forced population control policies such as sterilizations and abortions. Because of the limit, more than 7,000 people, most of them from China, have been restricted to conditional asylum and cannot apply for permanent residency, Strassberger said.
Under the legislation, Americans applying for driver’s licenses will have to bring far more information with them to motor vehicle offices. They will be asked to show birth certificates, a photo ID, proof of their Social Security number and a document with full name and home address.
Motor vehicle departments will be required to verify the documents and the Social Security numbers. States still could give licenses to illegal immigrants, but they would have different designs or colors to alert security officers that they are unacceptable as IDs for boarding planes or entering federal buildings. The Homeland Security Department will specify later how much documentation is to be required on license renewals.
The negotiators also agreed to spend $450 million to hire 1,000 border patrol officers and other immigration agents and provide nearly 2,000 new beds for detainees. The amount was less than the approximately $600 million that the Senate had included in its version of the spending bill. The House did not include any money for these purposes.
The bill is H.R. 1268.