Monday, March 14, 2005


By William Fisher

An organization of September 11 families is lobbying U.S. senators to defeat the REAL ID bill.

“September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows” charges that the proposed legislation, which passed the House of Representatives last week, “will make our highways more dangerous, undermine our security, impose guilt by association, and prevent some people fleeing persecution from obtaining refuge”.

Colleen Kelly, a spokesperson for the group, told IPS, “As an organization composed of family members of those killed in the September 11th terrorist attacks, we are vigilant in promoting measures that enhance our security. We also have a special responsibility to point out measures that use our concern about this nation’s safety and security to promote an entirely different agenda. Sadly, that is the case” with the REAL ID Act.”

The proposed legislation, introduced by Representative James Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, lists factors relevant to credibility determinations in asylum cases; authorizes the Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) to waive environmental laws to construct barriers and roads at the U.S.-Mexican border; expands grounds of inadmissibility and deportability due to terrorist or terrorist-related activity; modifies the provision defining "engage in terrorist activity" to eliminate the possibility of discretionary waivers of inadmissibility for material support of organizations or individuals that have engaged in terrorist activity; expands the definition of a "terrorist organization"; prohibits Federal agencies from accepting State issued driver's licenses or identification cards unless such documents are determined by the DHS Secretary to meet minimum security requirements; requires States, as a condition of receiving financial assistance, to participate in the interstate compact regarding the sharing of driver's license data; and authorizes the Secretary to make grants to States to assist them in conforming to the document standards of the act.

Ms. Kelly asserts that the bill “will not make us safer” and will “prevent people fleeing persecution from obtaining relief: Some asylum seekers are actually fleeing from the very countries the U. S. government has labeled as supportive of terrorist activity. Asylum applicants already undergo more extensive security checks than any other foreign nationals who come to this country. Terrorists and others who pose a danger to our security are already ineligible for asylum.”

The group also claims that the legislation would “Make our highways more dangerous and undermine our security”. The intelligence reform bill that Congress passed last year already addresses the concerns raised by the 9/11 Commission regarding driver's licenses and identity documents. However, Mr. Sensenbrenner's proposal to set federal eligibility requirements for driver's licenses, including restrictions on immigrants' access to licenses, would undermine, not enhance, national security by pushing people deeper into the shadows and forcing many more to drive without a license in order to earn a living. Such a result would severely undermine the law enforcement utility of Department of Motor Vehicles databases by limiting, rather than expanding, government data about individuals in this country.”

The bill would also” impose guilt by association by permitting deportation of non-citizens who are members of or support any political organization that has used violence, even if the organization has not been designated as a "foreign terrorist organization," is misguided. This proposal to impose guilt by association leaves out what we believe to be a basic component of wrongdoing – intent. With its retroactive application, it could be used to deport long-term, lawful residents, even if the association rendering them deportable occurred decades earlier and was legal at the time.”

The group says Congress should be “working on comprehensively reforming our immigration system so that immigration is legal, safe, orderly, and reflective of the needs of American families, businesses, and national security.”

Douglas G. Rivlin, Director of Communication for the National Immigration Forum (NIF), an advocacy group, told IPS, “While many think you can’t have comprehensive immigration reform until you have border security, that is precisely backwards. You can’t have border security until our immigration laws are reformed so that they we make legality the prevailing norm and can concentrate scarce enforcement resources on real threats like terrorism and criminals. Unilateral, heavy-handed, enforcement-only, border-centric strategies are demonstrably ineffective. What we need is reform that puts the emphasis on legal immigration channels and reflects the reality of our economic and security needs.”

Founded in 2002, Peaceful Tomorrows is an organization of “family members of those killed on September 11th who have united to turn our grief into action for peace. By developing and advocating nonviolent options and actions in the pursuit of justice, we hope to break the cycles of violence engendered by war and terrorism”.

As the REAL ID bill makes its way to the Senate, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced it will conduct an audit of a number of the detention facilities used to house suspected illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers. The facilities became the subject of controversy when, following 9/11, large numbers of immigrants and visitors to the U.S. were rounded up and arrested. Most were Arabs and other Muslims. Many complained of being held for long periods of time in inhumane conditions without charges or access to legal counsel. Hundreds were deported.

A DHS flyer announces that its Inspector General (OIG) “is conducting a review of the treatment of aliens held on immigration charges at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities.” It urges detainees who feel they “have been physically or sexually abused or...conditions of confinement have been abusive” to contact them. “All contacts will be kept confidential, ” the OIG said.

The OIG is “assessing the treatment of detainees and conditions of confinement” at ten of the detention facilities. These facilities were formerly operated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), now renamed Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and incorporated into the DHS.

Mark Dow, author of “American Gulag: Inside America’s Secret Prisons”, and an authority on the INS/ICE detention facilities told IPS he had “mixed feelings” about the OIG investigation because he believes the government should not be operating any prison system for immigrants. However, he urged "NGO's to be sure to take control of this rather than become OIG messengers and then have to start the same old fight again to make sure complaints are handled seriously.” He said he hoped the OIG investigation would be “a springboard for establishing monitoring systems outside DHS altogether."