ACLU, Allies Oppose Sensenbrenner's Anti-Immigrant Bill; Mean-Spirited Measure Would Hurt Persecuted, Undermine Privacy

February 9, 2005 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – In one of its first major actions this session, the House of Representatives is debating today anti-immigrant legislation introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI). The American Civil Liberties Union renewed its opposition to the measure, H.R. 418 – the REAL ID Act — joining a diverse coalition of privacy, immigrants’ rights and conservative organizations who have raised concerns.

“The House has made one of its first must-pass bills a measure that would do little to enhance our security while severely undermining our national commitment to freedom and liberty,” said Timothy H. Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “This bill takes ideas rejected by Congress last session and seeks to create significant hurdles to the persecuted seeking safe haven here.”

Specifically, the bill would make it easier to send asylum-seekers back to the countries they are fleeing if they cannot provide written “corroboration” of their claims, a move contrary to international law. Federal law already gives officials ample discretion to deny improper asylum claims, and asylum applicants are subject to much more extensive scrutiny than virtually any other pool of non-citizens seeking entry to the United States.

Opposition to the bill is diverse, coming from, among others, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the oldest and largest Irish-American group; the American Conservative Union; the Free Congress Foundation; the Republican Liberty Caucus; Episcopal Migration Ministries; the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Human Rights First; Amnesty International and September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.

Concerns have also been expressed by former Republican Congressman Bob Barr and the executive director of Gun Owners of America, Larry Pratt, who wrote in a Washington Times op-ed last November that the asylum provision would “[force] Christians and others fleeing persecution to provide written ‘corroboration’ from the very officials they are fleeing.” The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has also issued a report denouncing the measure.

Judge Michael Chertoff, the Bush Administration’s nominee to head the Homeland Security Department, has previously protested such practices of improperly demanding corroborating documents from repressive governments.

Sensenbrenner has also offered an amendment to make the bill appear to offer something valuable to the persecuted, but actually makes the bill worse, the ACLU said. The amendment would lift the artificially low cap that leads to long delays for those who have been granted asylum to obtain green cards, but it would also add additional restrictions and asylum and court-stripping provisions that would take away the power of the courts to review unlawful actions by the government in many deportation cases.

The court-stripping provisions are a direct attack on the Supreme Court’s decision in St. Cyr v. INS, a landmark immigrants rights case brought by the ACLU that established the ability of immigrants who were convicted of crimes many years earlier to have their “day in court” despite restrictions on judicial review passed in 1996.

Another provision of the REAL ID Act would make it possible to deport long-term, lawful, permanent residents for providing non-violent, humanitarian support to organizations labeled “terrorist” by the government. This provision would apply even when such support was completely legal at the time it was provided.

The bill would also retroactively make legal donations to “terrorist” groups grounds for deportation of green-card holders who have lived here for decades. The Patriot Act already allows the government to deny entry to non-citizens outside the country on this basis.

The REAL ID Act would also worsen the already troubling driver’s license provisions in the intelligence reform legislation passed last year by forcing states to deny driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. The use of state motor vehicle agencies as agents of the federal immigration service would further the growing trend, alarming both conservatives and progressives, of transforming drivers’ licenses into de facto national ID cards. It would also lead to an increase in unlicensed drivers, undermining public safety and increasing insurance rates for everyone. Motor vehicles employees lack training in federal immigration law, and are likely instead to rely on ethnic profiling based on notions of who “looks foreign.”

The ACLU noted that in a recent interview with the conservative journal Human Events, Sensenbrenner voiced his opposition to a national ID card.

“Sensenbrenner says he is opposed to a national ID card, and yet he’s laying the foundation for one,” added Marvin J. Johnson, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “A national ID card would only serve to restrict our freedoms and invade our privacy and do little to ensure our security. Our privacy must not be swept away by Congress, especially when there has been little discussion on the ramifications of such a move.”

The ACLU’s letter on REAL ID is online at:
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A coalition letter to the House urging opposition to the REAL ID Act can be read at:
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The Ancient Order of Hibernians letter on REAL ID can be found at:
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September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows’ letter is available at:
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