The House of Representatives is considering legislation to toughen U.S. laws dealing with immigration and political asylum. Republican sponsors say the steps are needed to protect against new terrorist attacks, and are a necessary follow-up to steps taken since the September 11, 2001 al-Qaida attacks on the United States.
Called the Real ID Act, the legislation is described by Republican supporters in the House as a critical addition to homeland security.
Congressman James Sensenbrenner, who heads the House Judiciary Committee, says it aims to prevent another attack such as that on September 11, 2001.
"Immigrants with few exceptions are not terrorists,” he said. “However, we have to be able to make sure that the documentation that is used by the people in the United States accurately states who they are and why they are here."
The legislation would give judges more power to assess the credibility of asylum applicants, and detect false statements. The Department of Homeland Security would get new powers to tighten border security and track illegal immigrants.
It would also require applicants to prove that a central reason for requesting asylum was persecution because of race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
But the spotlight is not only on asylum issues, but on methods the September 11 hijackers used to operate once they were in the United States.
"19 terrorists had 63 [US] drivers' licenses,” said Congressman Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “Drivers' licenses allowed them to get money, to get transportation and to stage for the attack on September 11th on our country."
Mr. Hunter calls that a compelling reason to change how drivers' licenses can be used for identification.
The bill proposes stricter minimum standards before issuing drivers' licenses or identification cards, including verification that applicants are U.S. citizens or are lawfully present in the United States. It also establishes stricter conditions for using licenses for federal identification purposes.
Mr. Sensenbrenner says his goal is to tighten loopholes in licensing procedures that terrorists have taken advantage of in the past.
"If someone is legally in the United States on a temporary visa, their driver's license will expire on the date their visa expires,” he explained. “So we would never again have a Mohamad Atta, given a six-month visa and a six-year driver's license."
Opponents call the legislation ill conceived and reflective of what they call an anti-immigrant attitude on the part of Republicans and the Bush administration.
Congressman John Conyers joined others in issuing this warning during debate.
"If we truly believe in all we have heard about the importance of freedom and liberty from our president and others, then we have no other choice but to vote down this bill which denies so much freedom and liberty to the immigrants in our own country," he said.
The legislation is opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union and similar groups who assert it would do little to enhance U.S. security, while undermining the U.S. commitment to freedom and liberty.
However, one organization of families of September 11 victims supports the bill, and Republican sponsors point to public opinion polls they say show Americans overwhelmingly favor such measures.
House Republicans were able to claim support from President Bush after the White House issued a statement Wednesday in favor of the bill.
Republican sponsors believe the legislation, which could be voted on Thursday, will find significant support in the Senate.
The House and Senate would have to reconcile differences before a final version could go to President Bush for signature.
The legislation also seeks to complete construction of an unfinished border fence along the U.S. southern border with Mexico near San Diego.