The U.S. House of Representatives has approved a controversial new law that would toughen regulations regarding the issuing of drivers' licenses, and make it easier for judges to deport illegal immigrants suspected of links with terrorism.
With a vote of 261 to 161, the House approved the Real ID Act, taking what the bill's Republican sponsors describe as an important step in safeguarding Americans against future terrorist attacks.
Last year's report of the independent commission that investigated security and other lapses before the September 11, 2001 al-Qaida attacks said terrorists were able to take advantage of system loopholes and travel documents, especially drivers' licenses.
The Real ID Act, which still must be taken up by the Senate, directs states to ensure that applicants for licenses are U.S. citizens or are in the country legally.
Judges would get more power in deciding on deportation, and applicants for asylum would have to show clearly that a central reason for their request was persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
The Department of Homeland Security would get new powers to tighten border security and track illegal immigrants.
In debate on the floor of the House of Representatives, Republicans such as Congressman J. D. Hayworth, argued that the attacks of September 11, 2001 provided indisputable reasons for passing the legislation.
"In the wake of September 11, in the wake of clear and demonstrable evidence that there are those who come to this nation with the intent of harming and killing Americans, who are bent on the destruction of our nation, and our system of government, at long last this body should take the steps necessary to preserve our security and our liberty," he said.
Democrats contended that the legislation would have a chilling effect on civil liberties and the ability of people seeking to immigrate for legitimate reasons.
Congressman Howard Berman called the asylum provisions of the legislation flawed. "If Section 101 (referring to asylum) becomes law, people with a well-founded fear of persecution as a result of these changes will be denied asylum," he said. "There will be no effort whatsoever to enhance our effort to protect this country against terrorism, but we will have struck a fundamental blow against a tradition which I think is very important to maintain in this country and that is that we are a haven for refugees from persecution, for political, ethnic, religious (and) gender reasons."
Republicans also pointed to the September 11 attacks in promoting a key provision of the bill, which directs that a drivers' license in the hands of someone with a temporary visa would expire at the same time the visa expires.
Republican Congressman Pete Sessions offered an amendment aimed at ensuring that once someone is ordered deported, they are speedily returned to their home country. "Sadly, according to our government's best statistics, only 13 percent of the aliens arrested entering the country illegally and ordered deported, are actually removed," he said. "As a result, people entering the country illegally and with criminal or terrorist intent have quickly learned that if arrested they can be quickly released on their own word, and that they can be confident in the knowledge they do not have to show up for their hearing knowing they will likely never be deported."
The bill was opposed by many civil liberties groups and organizations working to protect immigrant rights, and by state governors and motor vehicle departments who said it would impose unnecessary burdens on the driver's license approvals.
President Bush this week announced his support for the legislation, which Republican lawmakers had wanted to place in a much larger bill approved last year reforming the U.S. intelligence system.
The Senate would have to pass its own version of the legislation, and the two congressional chambers would have to work out differences, before the law could go to President Bush for signature.