REAL ID Act

Published in the Asbury Park Press on April 12, 2005.

By Parastou Hassouri and Amy Gottlieb

More than a year after President Bush first announced his commitment to immigrants, many eagerly await the passage of a bill that would reform our current immigration system and help put undocumented immigrants already living and working in the United States on a path to lawful permanent resident status.

Instead, Congress has put forth legislation that will ultimately undermine public safety, erode civil liberties, and threaten our country’s character as a haven for those fleeing persecution.

We are talking about the passage, in February, by 262 to 161 votes, of H.R. 418, the “REAL ID” Act. Among its provisions are ones that would: alter standards governing asylum applications and require that individuals seeking protection from persecution produce evidence from the very governments they are fleeing, expand existing restrictions on courts to review decisions, establish federally mandated guidelines for the issuance of state driver’s licenses, and expedite the construction of fences and barriers at our borders and exempt the process from other applicable laws, including civil , criminal and environmental.

These measures may sound familiar because Congress already considered and rejected them in H.R. 10, the intelligence reform bill implementing the 9/11 Commission recommendations. That bill passed in November with none of the restrictive immigration provisions contained in REAL ID.

Why did legislators reject them? Because they recognized that provisions in REAL ID represent the first steps towards a National ID that does little or nothing to protect us and infringes greatly on our privacy rights. In addition, restrictions on access to driver’s licenses undermine public safety by creating a black market for counterfeit licenses and placing more unlicensed and uninsured drivers on the road.

Unfortunately, this time around our legislators failed to recognize that REAL ID’s provisions place insurmountable obstacles in the path of those fleeing persecution, in contravention to international law and our commitment and obligation to serve as a haven for those fleeing persecution. They remove due process rights that have long been recognized for all persons in the United States, not just citizens. And, they exempt the Department of Homeland Security, in an unprecedented disregard for the rule of law, from existing federal statutes and regulations in order to rapidly construct a fence that will only exacerbate what is already a morally untenable situation - hundreds of deaths each year along the border.

Congress’ slashing of existing rights conflicts with the Bush Administration’s rhetoric of immigration reform. It moves away from recognizing that any comprehensive change to the system cannot simply cut immigrants’ eligibility for programs, restrict their access to courts, and create a permanent underclass, but must acknowledge that immigration and security are two distinct issues, that immigrants contribute in a myriad of ways to our communities, and that enhancing enforcement of existing immigration laws will not do anything to address the need for reform.

New Jersey, as home to one of the highest foreign-born populations in the nation, must stand with its immigrant communities to prevent unfair and misguided legislation from creating fear, distrust and broken families.

Nearly every week, it is possible to pick up a local New Jersey paper and find a story about the arrest, detention, and deportation of yet another undocumented immigrant. Many of these individuals spent years working in the United States and have U.S. citizen children. How does arresting undocumented Guatemalans in Trenton or Indians in Jersey City in the middle of the night and splitting up American families improve security?

Deportations will not resolve the issue of undocumented immigrants living in New Jersey, since stronger enforcement does not address the underlying causes of migration. Recent news reports indicate that the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. is higher than previously acknowledged, even after Congress passed laws in 1996 that dramatically increased the number of border patrol agents.

A common outcome of deportations is forcing families whose principal breadwinner has been deported into the state’s welfare system. In some instances, they force the deported father or husband separated from his family to seek to re-enter the United States, at all costs, even it means putting himself in danger or at the mercy of unscrupulous smugglers.

And in communities where local police participate in immigration arrests, it serves only to heighten fear and distrust of police in immigrant communities. This greatly affects public safety because law enforcement needs strong connections with immigrant communities to investigate crimes and we cannot afford to have immigrants fearful of turning to the police when they are victims of or witnesses to crimes.

The cities of Trenton and Princeton have taken the lead by issuing pro-immigrant resolutions. Other cities should follow to protect immigrants’ rights and ensure that all New Jersey residents are treated with dignity and respect.

We must reject knee-jerk measures that scapegoat immigrants. Let’s hope that when the Senate considers the REAL ID ACT this month with its short-sighted and wrong-headed provisions, it rejects it as well.

Parastou Hassouri serves as Immigrant Rights Specialist at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. Amy Gottlieb is Director of the American Friends Service Committee Immigrant Rights Program based in Newark.

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