by Michael Doyle
January 05, 2005
"We need to strengthen our borders, reform our asylum laws, and improve national standards for drivers licenses," House Speaker Dennis Hastert said Tuesday in his inaugural speech of the 109th Congress. "The terrorists who attacked us did so by exploiting gaps in our border security system (and) by abusing our immigration laws. ... We must fill those gaps."
Upward of 100 lawmakers already have signed on to the legislation set for formal introduction Wednesday. The package fulfills a promise Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., made last month after his preferred policies were dropped from an intelligence agency reform bill.
"We intend to move quickly on it," House Judiciary Committee spokesman Jeff Lungren said Tuesday. "We're going to finish this bill, and when we get this off the table, we can focus on other issues."
The bill would complete a three-mile gap in a fence along the United States-Mexico border near San Diego. It would allow federal agencies to accept only those driver's licenses provided to those who have presented proof of legal U.S. residency. It would make it harder to appeal immigration decisions and easier for immigration judges to reject asylum applicants.
Asylum seekers are those who request U.S. residency out of fear of persecution in their home country; unlike refugees, they have already arrived in the United States. Last year, the United States received 43,000 asylum applications, approving about 60 percent of them. Sensenbrenner contends that judges in the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have been granting asylum to foreigners whose home governments consider them terrorists.
Through his Judiciary Committee chairmanship, Sensenbrenner carries great weight in shaping the immigration debate. Even so, his word is not necessarily the final one.
In particular, Sensenbrenner's Senate counterparts favor a different approach. The moderate new Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, backs a sweeping immigration package dubbed AgJobs. The bill is similarly supported by groups as diverse as the United Farm Workers of America and the Western United Dairymen.
"This allows dairy farmers to have access to a workforce that wants to work," said Michael Marsh, chief executive officer of Western United Dairymen.
The AgJobs bill would give several hundred thousand illegal farm workers the chance at winning temporary legal status. In time, the workers could attain permanent U.S. residency and citizenship.
With a comfortable majority of the Senate backing the AgJobs legislation last Congress, it has momentum of its own. It also has skeptics. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has warned about the potential for inadvertently stimulating more illegal migration.
The Sensenbrenner and AgJobs bills, while perhaps the most prominent, will not be the only immigration bills introduced this year. On Tuesday, for instance, influential California Republican David Dreier - chairman of the House Rules Committee - introduced a bill to require that Social Security cards include photographs and encrypted electronic identification strips.