April 22, 2005

The RealID Act makes me want to vomit

To pressure Congress into swallowing Bush's latest military spending bill, the Republican Party is sweetening the deal. To mask the $81.3 billion of bitterness, House Republicans are heaping on riders like $580 million humanitarian aid to Darfur, $656 million for tsunami relief, and $580 million for peacekeeping programs. In this flurry of cut-and-paste legislation, however, Representative Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin has tacked on the Real ID Act, up for inclusion in the Senate's bill as the Isakson amendment. More a dash of Rohypnol than a spoonful of sugar, the Real ID legislation scapegoats immigrants and desperate refugees, promotes unsafe highways, and boosts an unelected secretary's power to dizzying heights. I only hope that, when you read this, it hasn't yet passed.

First, the bill sets harsher standards for refugees seeking asylum, requiring documented proof that persecution was their attackers' "central" motive. Without strict proof, refugees will be returned to the countries they've fled from, until they can get a signed note from the death squads. The provision was allegedly included to protect against terrorists' abuse of asylum law to enter the country, but existing laws already bar terrorists from gaining U.S. asylum, making Real ID redundant at best and pernicious at worst. It's an absurd—and cruel—new burden of proof.

A second provision restricts habeas corpus for immigrants, preventing most from challenging their deportation in court, while a third legalizes the deportation of immigrants on the basis of previously lawful speech and association. Long-term residents may be expelled for the weakest of terrorist links. Immigration lawyer Robert Deasy offers the following example: If an immigrant were to contribute to a tsunami relief fund that is a subsidiary of an organization in a Tamil Tiger controlled region of Sri Lanka, she or he could be deported, save "clear and convincing evidence" that she or he didn't know of the charity's connection. With the burden of proof resting squarely on the shoulders of the accused, Real ID renders immigrants guilty before proven innocent.

In addition, the legislation undercuts the marginal progress made in states like California to admit the reality of undocumented immigration, by preventing migrants from getting driver's licenses and automotive insurance. The sheer number of undocumented workers and our economy's dependence on their underpaid, underappreciated labor should compel us to recognize and address the causes and effects of illegal immigration, not plug our ears and sing the Real ID Act's regressive tune. Denying immigrants licenses can only make for more unlicensed, uninsured drivers, and more resources squandered on needless prosecutions. Hectic highways and backlogged courts will not make anyone in the U.S. safer.

Finally, just for fun, the bill includes a cheery little fascist measure granting the Secretary of Homeland Security "the authority to waive…all laws such Secretary, in such Secretary's sole discretion, determines necessary to ensure expeditious construction of the barriers and roads" claimed to be vital to national security. No courts are allowed "to hear any cause or claim arising from any action undertaken, or any decision made, by the Secretary of Homeland Security" in this process, nor to order any relief for damages incurred by the exercise of the Almighty Secretary's unchecked authority. You don't have to be a tree-hugger to feel wary of giving the non-elected Secretary such singular power to alter the landscape—especially if those roads cut through your back yard.

Military spending may be a bitter pill to swallow, but that shouldn't permit the right to go spike the punch. If the Isakson amendment is still up for debate, call your senators, and tell them the Real ID Act just isn't tasty.