WASHINGTON - Congressional negotiators agreed yesterday to measures that would discourage states from issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, tighten asylum requirements and complete the border fence between California and Mexico, sources involved in the talks said.
The agreement by House and Senate negotiators made it all but certain that the measures, by attaching them to the emergency spending bill, would become law.
The driver's license provision would, for the first time, set national standards for the state-issued documents. The key standard would require each applicant for a driver's license to prove legal residency in the United States.
If a state opts not to comply, its driver's licenses could not be recognized as valid for federal identification purposes - such as boarding an airplane or opening a bank account. As a result, most states would be expected to adopt the new standards.
The negotiators also agreed to a provision that supporters said would keep terrorists from using asylum laws to gain entry to the United States. The revisions would require asylum- seekers to offer more proof that they were fleeing persecution and would limit their right to judicial review if their petition were rejected by immigration officials.
The border fence provision would speed the closing of a 3.5-mile gap in the fence between San Diego, Calif., and Tijuana, Mexico. The Senate stripped similar provisions from a bill last year overhauling the nation's intelligence community. This year, the House sought to ensure their adoption by attaching them to the more than $80 billion dollar emergency spending bill that is devoted largely to covering the costs of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The spending bill is considered "must-pass" legislation, and it is expected to be adopted by both chambers this month.
The Senate version of the bill did not include the immigration-related provisions, collectively known as "RealID." But House and Senate lawmakers crafting the bill's final form agreed yesterday that the provisions would be part of it, sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But Jeff Lungren, the spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican, said the congressman was "optimistic that RealID will be included in the final bill."
Lungren said that the provisions would "plug holes" identified by the commission that investigated intelligence and security failures leading up to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The measures "will take a strong step toward bolstering our homeland security," Lungren said.
A coalition of immigrant rights groups, religious organizations and others said the provisions - rather than increasing security - would make roads less safe. Illegal immigrants would continue to drive, they say, but would avoid license tests designed to ensure their competency as motorists.
Tim Sparapani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, predicted that Americans would be shocked by the broad impact of the driver's license proposal.
States would have three years after the bill's passage to comply with that provision.
"If the states aren't ready within three years, citizens of states that haven't made the changes won't be able to board a flight, take a train, enter a federal courthouse or even go to a Social Security building," if they use their state-issued driver's license as identification, Sparapani said.
For those states that do comply, he said, "this really does, for the first time, create a national identification card and allows every single American to be tracked by all the states and the federal government."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.