REAL ID Act is a real threat

NewsAnalysis

The REAL ID Act, HR 418, is not only a threat to undocumented immigrants and refugees, but also to the U.S. Constitution. Introduced Jan. 26 and rammed through the House of Representatives last week, the bill will now quickly go to the Senate.

The act, whose chief House sponsor was James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), is the follow-up to a promise made to Republicans by House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) last fall, when some anti-immigrant language was removed from the Intelligence Reform Bill in order to assure quick passage. Hastert promised Sensenbrenner and his allies that they could push anti-immigrant legislation as a priority item in the new session.

What does HR 418 mandate?

• It makes it much harder for states to find ways to provide driver’s licenses to immigrants, with or without documents, and stands to worsen existing problems for legal resident immigrants and even some citizens (e.g. Puerto Ricans). The law requires states issuing driver’s licenses to implement new “safeguards” that include the laborious authentication of all documents presented. It turns low-level employees of state departments of motor vehicles into immigration cops, a role for which they are in no way trained. Driver’s licenses of states not complying will not be accepted for federal identification (e.g. to board an airplane). Many immigrants who have to drive to get to work will end up crossing their fingers and driving without licenses or valid insurance.

• It authorizes the suspension, at the sole discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security, of all laws relating to the U.S. border south of San Diego, Calif., if he deems it necessary to expedite the construction of certain border fences and other barriers. Thus, labor, environmental and other laws could be suspended for however long the DHS says.

• It allows the government to deny admission to immigrants, and deport legal resident immigrants, for association with any group that the government deems violent or terrorist, even if, at the time of the association, the group was not so designated. Any organization that has at one time or another engaged in, or even threatened, armed action, qualifies as terrorist under this act. This is a huge expansion of the USA Patriot Act.

• It creates a nightmare for people seeking political asylum in the United States by giving immigration judges (who are part of the executive branch, not of the judiciary) the authority to deny asylum if they think the applicant, by body language, tone of voice or hesitant manner, does not come across as convincing. Further, asylum seekers must show that they were being persecuted principally for their race, religion or nationality, and must provide proof that this was the persecutor’s motive.

What the bill does not do is make us one whit safer from terrorist attacks. None of the 9/11 terrorists came across the Mexican border or entered under an asylum petition. Among them they had 13 driver’s licenses, which HR 418 would not have prevented.

By reducing even further the power of the courts to intervene in cases of deportation and of denial of requests for asylum, and especially by the incredible idea of suspending all laws (and judicial enforcement of the same) under the pretext of border security, the REAL ID Act strikes a blow against one’s right to his or her day in court. In addition, it undermines separation of powers and the system of checks and balances by removing the function of the judiciary as a check on abuses of power by the other two branches of government.

The bill passed in the House with overwhelming Republican support in a vote of 261-161, over the opposition of the ACLU, National Council of La Raza, National Immigration Forum, American Immigration Lawyers’ Association, Human Rights First, and People for the American Way, among others. Forty-two Democrats voted in favor of the bill. The vote underscores the need to build stronger national coalitions — including organized labor and African American groups — to stop the reactionary attack on the foreign born.