4/29 Take Action! White House Issues Statement Supportive of REAL ID!
- White House Issues Statement Supportive of REAL IDApril 29, 2005Maurice Belanger
Senior Policy Associate
National Immigration Forum
This week, a committee of House and Senate negotiators has begun to meet in a conference to work out the difference between the House- and Senate-passed bills to fund the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among items being negotiated is whether the REAL ID Act, which was included in the House-passed version, will be included on the final bill.
On April 25th, the White House sent a letter to the lead negotiators for the House and Senate that among other things endorsed the REAL ID Act. The letter said in part:
“The Administration strongly urges the conferees to include the Real ID Act of 2005 in the final version of the bill. This important legislation will strengthen the ability of the United States to protect against terrorist entry into and activities within the United States. In particular, the legislation tightens procedures for non-citizen entry into and presence in the United States, facilitates the building of physical barriers where appropriate to protect U.S. borders, and facilitates the strengthening of State standards for the security and integrity of drivers' licenses.”
This development makes it much less likely that the REAL ID Act will be knocked off the bill in the conference committee.
Civics Lesson: It’s really about who has the keys to the back rooms.
When the House and Senate pass different versions of a bill, an ad-hoc committee of the two legislative bodies works out their differences, and ultimately one bill is sent back to the House and Senate for a last vote before being sent to the President for his signature. Generally, this “conference committee” is composed of Republicans and Democrats who sit on the permanent committees with jurisdiction over the issue. In a conference committee, members of one body may insist on the removal of a provision included in the version of the other body; there may be agreement to accept provisions from the other body (as is generally the case for “pork-barrel” projects that benefit a particular state or congressional district); or there might be an effort to come up with compromise language that will satisfy both chambers. After debate, these various efforts to amend the bill are voted on by the conferees and they succeed or fail. (Once reported out of conference, the bill can only be voted up or down by the House and Senate; it cannot be amended.)
That’s the theory. The reality is that many decisions are made among just a few of the lead negotiators. They line up the votes for their decisions ahead of time, and the actual conference can be largely pro-forma. In a situation where there is one-party rule in both chambers, such as we have today, the minority party can be shut out of the decision-making process entirely, as they can be locked out of the back rooms where the real decisions are made, and in the pro-forma ceremony of the conference, they don’t have the votes to influence the outcome.
Many of you may have read remarks made to the press by the Senate Democratic leader, in which he appeared to be throwing in the towel on the REAL ID Act. (“Democrats won’t stop drivers license verification bill, Reid says” was the USA Today headline.) His statement did give the appearance of surrender on this issue. We are told that Senator Reid and others are and continue to be committed to stopping the REAL ID Act. What he was referring to, rather, is this back-room decision-making process in which, in this instance, opponents of REAL ID don’t have all that much influence.
In the case of the REAL ID Act, leadership in the majority party in the House is tenaciously defending REAL ID. The most tenacious opponents of REAL ID (Senator Durbin of Illinois, for example) are generally (but not all) in the minority party. Advocates, therefore, must rely on the President and Senate pro-immigrant Republicans (Senator Brownback of Kansas, for example) and other moderates, who find the House anti-immigrant agenda distasteful.
In its letter to conferees endorsing the REAL ID Act, the White House made the political calculation, which we disagree with, that Representative Sensenbrenner, sponsor of the REAL ID Act, had to be appeased in order to later move forward with some sort of comprehensive reform. This judgment was unfortunate for a number of reasons. It gives the appearance that the President is embracing the anti-immigrant wing of his party. It legitimizes the restrictionist agenda, and feeds the sense among restrictionists that they have intimidated the President, as they have intimidated other politicians, and turned him away from his philosophical affinity for more humane policies. It represents a fundamental misunderstanding about how our immigration system can be made more secure. Sending a few asylum seekers back to their persecutors, building a few miles of fence, and keeping undocumented immigrants from getting legitimate driving documents will not make us safer. Comprehensive reform is the security approach, for only after we make our laws enforceable will we encourage people who are now living in the shadows to make themselves known, and only after we make our admissions policies more realistic will we be able to get a better handle on who is coming here.
Meanwhile, the moderate Republicans on the conference committee have been timid. For example, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is Chair of the Judiciary Committee, and immigration is under the jurisdiction of his committee. The provisions of the REAL ID Act have not been considered by his Committee. He is also on the conference committee. He is in the best position to demand that the REAL ID Act—an immigration bill—be dropped from this military spending bill. Yet, he appears to be negotiating on the margins, working to make the bill marginally less onerous.
(To read the Forum’s statement on the White House letter, click on the following link:
http://www.immigrationforum.org/DesktopDefault.aspx?tabid=728)How did we get here?
Once the REAL ID Act made it on to the House bill, it was going to be an uphill battle to prevent it from becoming law. The public wants something done about illegal immigration, in part because it is being stirred up by television personalities—Lou Dobbs and others—who have adopted immigration restrictionism as their mission. (Well, OK, they are really trying to get better ratings for their shows, but they have taken to bashing undocumented immigrants as a means to those ends.) In part, it is because our immigration system is broken. The consequences of that fact fall hardest on border states, but communities all over the country are trying to figure out how to deal with the immigrants that our legal immigration system does not accommodate. The ensuing chaos is frustrating to people.
In the absence of effective proposals to deal with the broken immigration system, and in the context of concern about terrorism, anti-immigrant members of Congress have fertile soil to push their get-tough, enforcement-only proposals. Anti-immigrant advocates, and their supporters in the public, have been very good at letting their views be known to members of Congress. In this climate, it is tough for members of Congress to oppose measures that promise more enforcement resources and harsher penalties.
Such is the case with REAL ID.
Turning a corner
So, am I suggesting that we all find another line of work—say, real estate?
At the risk of sounding like I’ve lost my marbles, I’d say things are about to start looking up.
§ Thanks to all of your hard work, REAL ID could not pass on the merits in the Senate. That is why it is tacked on to a very popular spending bill. (And the fight on REAL ID is not over—see below.)§ There are signs that the public, presented with effective comprehensive proposals, would support comprehensive reform. (Read about the results of a poll commissioned by the National Immigration Forum and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. AILA press release:
National Forum press release:
http://www.immigrationforum.org/documents/PressRoom/VoterAttitudesOnImmigration.pdf)§ Senators Kennedy and McCain have been working on comprehensive reform legislation, and we expect that legislation to be introduced in the near future.§ With comprehensive reform as an alternative, restrictionists will have a harder time defending enforcement-only proposals that have a decade-long track record of failure. It will give members of Congress an alternative to enforcement-only proposals they have faced thus far. And it will give us an opportunity to convince the public that we have a solution that will work.§ The message that we need comprehensive reform is making inroads. Editorial boards and individuals who have taken a more thoughtful approach in discussing our broken immigration system are already calling for comprehensive reform. For a sampling of arguments, click on the following link:
From a policy perspective, we have a proposal that might actually effectively address the problems with our immigration system. Restrictionists sound more and more like they are defending the status quo. Still, it will be a very tough fight. They are a very loud minority, and effective at distracting policy makers from finding effective solutions.
CALL TO ACTION!
Next week, conferees will resume negotiations on the military spending bill. Your continued advocacy is important for several reasons.§ House and Senate offices need to hear from advocates for immigrants. This past week, FAIR, along with some anti-immigrant radio ranters, have been in town lobbying members of Congress, so we know Congress has been hearing from our opponents.§ Pro-immigrant advocacy will strengthen the friends of effective immigration reform.§ The White House must feel some consequence for following the lead of the restrictionist wing of the Republican party, rather than leading the party and working in a bi-partisan manner to accomplish reforms that will actually work.§ There is still a chance that we may embolden some conferees to try to knock off or significantly change the REAL ID Act.
We ask that you continue to call the White House, and let President Bush know that you are outraged that he is supporting anti-immigrant legislation on the supplemental spending bill. While the White House has paid lip service to pro-immigrant reforms, when it comes to concrete action, the White House has so far sided with the Republican party’s restrictionist wing.
To contact the White House Comment Line (designed specifically for this purpose), call (202) 456-1111. You will leave a message either with a live operator or with a voice mail system. Please make your call today, and tell your family, friends, and allies to call as well!
You can also fax a letter or statement to the White House at (202) 456-2461. Sending communications via regular mail is not recommended, given the tight timeframe we have and extra security precautions taken with postal mail. For ideas on what to say, see the Forum’s statement at:
If your senator or representative is a conferee, you can continue to contact them and let them know that REAL ID should not emerge from the House-Senate conference.
Senate appropriators, all of whom are on the conference committee are listed at:
House conferees are as follows: Lewis (R-CA), Kolbe (R-AZ), Wolf (R-VA), Taylor (R-NC), Regula (R-OH), Hobson (R-OH), Knollenberg (R-MI), Walsh (R-NY), Rogers (R-KY), Young (R-FL), Bonilla (R-TX), Obey (D-WI), Visclosky (D-IN), Edwards (D-TX), Mollohan (D-WV), Lowey (D-NY), Sabo (D-MN), Murtha (D-PA), Dicks (D-WA).They are all appropriators, and are listed at:
Their DC contact information is available by clicking on “View Site.”=====================================================National Immigrant Solidarity Network
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