WASHINGTON—President Bush faces an early test on immigration policy this week as Congress considers legislation denounced by Latino groups as anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant.
Several provisions that would affect the lives of immigrants and asylum seekers found their way into a bill passed by the House of Representatives to reform the nation’s intelligence services.
The bill stems directly from recommendations by the bipartisan commission which investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. The Senate version of the bill does not contain these immigration clauses.
House and Senate conferees will try once again to reconcile their differing bills when Congress reconvenes for a lame duck session this week. The White House is on record as strongly opposing some of the House provisions but it remains to be seen whether Bush is willing to expend any political capital by putting pressure on Republican legislators to drop them.
“The House Republicans think they have a strong hand on this and seem ready to go to the mat. They seem to want to paint immigrants as the bad guys in the war on terror,” said Angela Kelley of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration group.
Opponents of the House bill say it would make it more difficult for refugees to obtain political asylum in the United States by raising the standards of proof required. It would also make it easier for the authorities to deport non-citizens, including legal residents.
“The bill is the biggest assault we have ever seen on political asylum. If passed, it would make it incredibly difficult for anyone to be granted asylum in this country,” said Erin Corcoran of Human Rights First.
The bill also seeks to prevent illegal immigrants from obtaining drivers’ licenses and would withdraw recognition of ID cards issued by Latin American embassies that many immigrants carry that now allow them to open bank accounts, obtain drivers licenses and even board aircraft.
Mexico has issued over 2 million of the cards, known as the “matricula consular” to its nationals, whether they are in the United States legally or illegally, and several other Latin American countries also issue ID cards.
LATINOS DENOUNCE BILL
Four major Latino organizations issued a joint statement last month denouncing the provisions as “anti-Latino and anti-immigrant.”
“These provisions will have a profound, negative impact on Latinos and other immigrants communities. They will not make us safer and, in fact, may make us less safe by driving a wedge between American communities and law enforcement,” they said.
Wisconsin Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a leading advocate of the bill, said all its provisions stemmed directly from the report of the 9/11 Commission.
“The legislation enhances security around our borders, and reduces opportunities for terrorists to enter and stay in the United States,” he said. “Every provision in this bill that is within the Judiciary Committee’s jurisdiction, is tied directly to a specific recommendation made by the 9/11 Commission.”
Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors reducing immigration, said the provisions would close loopholes in the nation’s defenses by making it easier to identify, track and deport illegal immigrants.
But the 9/11 Commission itself said the immigration clauses were not part of its report.
“We believe strongly that this bill is not the right occasion for tackling controversial immigration and law enforcement issues that go well beyond the Commission’s recommendations,” Commission chair Thomas Kean and vice chair Lee Hamilton said in a letter last month.
Bush won 44 percent of the fast-growing Hispanic vote in the Nov. 2 presidential election, up from 35 percent in 2000 according to exit polls. His administration has said it wants to make immigration reform a major focus of his second term.
However, there is a strong element in the Republican Party that opposes any concessions to illegal immigrants and would like to see restrictions placed on legal immigration as well.