By MICHAEL DOYLE
April 28, 2005
"It was an easy, not a difficult matter," Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said Wednesday. "There's a great urgency, and both houses have expressed that urgency."
Opponents feel a different kind of pressure.
"It's a radically bad bill that will have radically bad consequences," said Judith Golub, spokeswoman for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "We're going to keep fighting it."
Negotiators were still combing through the language late Wednesday, and the final technical details remained a work in progress.
The legislation initially approved by the House sets the first-ever national standards for driver's licenses. These include a requirement that states verify the license applicant is a legal U.S. resident. Licenses from states that refuse to follow this standard couldn't be used for federal identification purposes, such as boarding airplanes.
Nine states currently permit illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. California briefly did as well, under a bill signed by then-Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, but that provision was quickly revoked by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Democratic state Sen. Gill Cedillo of Los Angeles has subsequently tried to revive the driver's license effort with new state legislation, but the congressional bill sidetracked that idea.
More broadly, the Iraq spending bill provisions now being finalized would make it harder for asylum applicants to prove they qualify for protection in the United States. Asylum applicants, who totaled 46,272 in 2003, would have to provide more evidence that they faced persecution, and they could be more easily rejected if the asylum judge questioned their "demeanor" or "responsiveness."
Nearly one in three of the asylum applicants nationwide apply through San Francisco or Los Angeles, and California is home to the largest number of asylum seekers.
The bill also clears away potential environmental obstacles to completing a fence along the border between San Diego and Mexico.
Collectively, the provisions are known as the REAL ID package. Lewis said it will essentially "come in its entirety" into the larger Iraq spending bill.
"Originally, I thought the greatest difficulty we would have would be with immigration," Lewis acknowledged.
Standing on their own, the immigration provisions incite considerable controversy. But because the House attached them to an $81 billion bill funding U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are passengers on a fast-moving vehicle.
The meeting late Wednesday afternoon between 19 House members and 28 senators was the first formal session for negotiating the final version of the Iraq bill. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had already acknowledged the likely outcome for the immigration provisions.
"They're going to do it," Reid said Monday, undercutting the hopes of senators who wanted to fight the immigration provisions. "It's only a question of when."
The White House further nailed down the deal Tuesday, when the Office of Management and Budget issued a statement reiterating its support for the immigration measures. That high-level backing helped cinch the deal, Lewis said.