Driver's license bill roils a melting pot

In California, illegal immigrants and US citizens alike debate tighter ID requirements.

On a downtown street corner here, a group of undocumented immigrant workers has interrupted their morning commute to job sites across this sprawling metropolis. The serendipitous gathering has a sense of both confusion and urgency.

"A driver's license would make my life so much easier for me and better for my [employers] as well," says a domestic worker identifying herself only as Monica A. "I waste a third of my day taking buses across town to get to my job and home again."

Getting a driver's license is going to be "much harder now if not impossible," says a companion named Manny. "You can thank Al Qaeda and 9/11 for that."

"Everything is getting harder for us," says a second man. "Getting across the border is tougher. And now, even asking for asylum is going to be more difficult."

The impromptu meeting is another indication that since Sept. 11, 2001, the issues of immigration, visa overstays, cross-border smuggling, and national security have become entwined - often to the consternation of those most affected. The curbside concern is a repeat of other debates that have coalesced on several key occasions dating back a decade to California's Proposition 187, which barred illegal immigrants from public benefits, and in 1998, when the state ended bilingual education.

The immigrants - legal and illegal alike - are gathering outside this local human rights organization both for solidarity and to question the immediate consequences of a bill now pending in Washington.

A bill approved by the US House Feb. 10, which would make driver's licenses unacceptable for federal identification purposes such as boarding commercial aircraft, passed by a vote of 261 to 161. The bill also makes it more difficult for foreigners who arrive in the US to win political asylum. A third provision would speed completion of a three-mile section of fence at the US-Mexican border near San Diego.

Here at the offices of Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, executive director Anjelica Salas sums up one set of reactions.

"This bill is a great step backward because at the end of the day it does not address real changes needed in comprehensive immigration reform," says Ms. Salas. She says the law tramples the rights of 11 states which already allow illegals to possess driver's licenses.

While the new law purports to be about limiting driver's licenses to bolster homeland security, it masks a very "narrow minded" provision on political asylum, she says - requiring applicants to "get confirmation from their home government that they are, indeed, being persecuted," she adds. "That provision would be laughable if it were not so outrageous."

The bill's third provision, closing a three-mile-gap in the San Diego border wall does not address "the pull factor of immigrants who want to come to America for jobs. You can build the Great Wall of China," says Salas, "and they will find a way in...."

Lawmakers contend, however, that their bill is not intended to be anti-immigrant. In congressional debate and in briefings for reporters, bill sponsor James Sensenbrenner(R) of Wisconsin, said the bill is simply a way to make it difficult for hijackers to board America airplanes and for foreign terrorists to blend into American society. He and others point to the 9/11 commission report hearings last year that emphasized how the Sept. 11 conspirators used American driver's licenses as identification - rather than passports - to avoid arousing suspicion.

"This is not an immigration issue," it is a national security issue," said the House Government Reform Committee chairman, Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia. He also denied "trampling" the prerogative of states that allow driver's licenses for illegals.

"We don't tell states they can issue driver's licenses. 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.'"

Details and implications of the House bill will be the source of much scrutiny in coming weeks - perhaps months - as the Senate takes up debate. Observers say its passage as a stand alone bill there is not assured. But there is some concern that the bill will likely be attached to other (so-called "must pass") legislation.

The bill puts some question marks over legislation in 11 states which permit illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, as well as pending legislation in California. Former Gov. Gray Davis signed a provision into law; it was subsequently reversed under Governor Schwarzenegger. A revised bill remains on his desk, but Mr. Schwarzenegger says he will not sign without assurance that there are some measures to to stop would-be terrorists from obtaining them.

The "Real ID" bill does not force states to comply, but if they don't, state licenses cannot be used to board airplanes in the US, open bank accounts, or enter federal buildings. "We think this bill is all to the good, because we have argued for a long time that driver's licenses are the de facto IDs for this country," says Ira Mehlman, Los Angeles spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform. "We need to be careful who gets them and we ought to know who gets them and that they are not in the country illegally."

Beyond arguments for and against, some observers say the implementation as currently written, is unworkable. And they say the real reason for issuing driver's licenses to illegals is not to have immigration controls, but to ensure road safety and auto insurance.

"What [the bill] does is put the burden on the states to verify the validity of federal documents [such as birth certificates]," says Cheye Calvo, senior policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan group which is opposing the bill. "I submit to you that is not possible."

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