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New Intelligence Bill Leaves Fight over Immigration Issues For Next Congress

A compromise between the House of Representatives and the Senate in Washington has cleared the way for passage of a sweeping intelligence reform bill. As part of the compromise, controversial sections to restrict illegal aliens from obtaining driver's licenses were dropped. But the debate over this issues is likely to continue.

Word that the negotiations in Congress had resolved differences over the intelligence bill brought cheers from some sectors and grimaces from others. While there is broad agreement with the goal of streamlining the U-S intelligence agencies as called for the 9/11 commission report, there has been disagreement over such issues as using federal law to restrict states from issuing driver's licenses to people who cannot prove citizenship or legal residency.

Ira Mehlman, Media Director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, known as FAIR, says the congressional compromise sidesteps a recommendation by the 9/11 commission and makes it easier for terrorists to operate here. "The 9/11 commission report specifically mentioned the fact that driver's licenses were far too easy for just about anybody to obtain here in the United States and that among the 19 terrorists they had 63 different driver's licenses under various assumed names," he said. "They understood that the driver's license is the essential piece of identification that people in the United States have and we are still leaving loopholes in the law that will allow future terrorists to take advantage of it."

But the intelligence bill compromise is being welcomed by some large Hispanic groups like the National Council of La Raza, known as NCLR, whose spokesperson, Flavia Jimenez, says proposals to restrict driver's licenses would do nothing to stop terrorists.

"Restricting driver's licenses to people who are here legally and not providing licenses to people who are undocumented does not make us any safer," he said. "The 9/11 terrorists still would have been able to obtain their driver's licenses even with these new rules or new laws that would have further restricted the use of a driver's license."

But Mr. Mehlman argues that the issue goes beyond terrorism and involves the proper enforcement of U.S. immigration laws. "We ought to be denying people basic things like driver's licenses that make it very easy to remain in the United States illegally. The easier we make it, the more likely they are to remain. If we want to deal with illegal immigration, then we have to discourage people, not encourage people," he said.

But immigrant advocates like Flavia Jimenez say U.S. communities are better off having everyone who must drive to work properly licensed and insured. "There is a whole set of safety issues that go along with that including not only learning how to drive properly, but also being insured. That is what we are concerned with, we are concerned with communities having folks on the road who know how to drive and that those people be insured, so that everyone will be safer on the roads," he said.

While the effort to impose federal restrictions on the issuance of driver's licenses will not be in the intelligence reform bill, it is likely to come up in Congress again next year. President Bush, who has been urging passage of the bill, says he looks forward to working with Congress early in the next session to address the driver's license question and other security issues.