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Real ID Act Attached to “Must-Pass” Spending Bill Imposes Anti-Immigrant Measures

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Congress is poised to pass a law billed as an antiterrorism measure that would have a significant impact on immigrant rights in this country. The bill is attached to a “must-pass” appropriations measure for troops in Iraq and tsunami relief. We take a look at the “Real ID Act” with Aarti Shahani of Families for Freedom. [includes rush transcript]

Congress is poised to pass a law billed as an antiterrorism measure that would have a significant impact on immigrant rights in this country.

The “Real ID Act” would make sweeping changes to the nation’s system for issuing drivers licenses and would overturn laws in nine states that allow undocumented workers to obtain drivers licenses. Another set of provisions raise the standard for granting asylum for those fleeing persecution in other countries.

The House sent the bill to the Senate as part of a “must-pass” appropriations measure for troops in Iraq and tsunami relief. Neither chamber has held hearings or thorough discussions on the measure.

Six Republican senators last week signed a letter last week asking Senate majority leader Bill Frist not to let the Real ID Act appear in the final bill. They wrote “Legislating in such a complex area without the benefit of hearings and expert testimony is a dubious exercise and one that subverts the Senate’s deliberative process.” Despite the objections, House Republicans are pushing to keep the Real ID in the final conference report.

The American Civil Liberties Union has been joined by a number of groups in opposing the measure. And the Boston Globe, New York Newsday and Washington Post have all come out with editorials against the legislation.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined now by Aarti Shahani, an organizer with the immigrant advocacy group, Families for Freedom, based in New York. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Can you lay out just what this bill is?

AARTI SHAHANI: Sure, let me talk quickly about what it is, and the process that’s just sort of repeating itself historically. The Real I.D. Act is a sweeping measure to curtail immigrants’ rights, in terms of livelihood, like drivers licenses, Juan had mentioned, in terms of access to courts if they’re being deported. For the first time since the Civil War, the Real I.D. Act actually proposes to suspend habeas corpus. Now for anyone that has read the Constitution — I’m not sure the Congress members have — but for anyone who has read the Constitution, habeas is a Constitutional right. Other things the Real I.D. does is it empowers bounty hunters, private police forces, to go ahead and arrest immigrants that may be in deportation proceedings with virtually no oversight. It also gives the Department of Homeland Security carte blanche to basically go ahead and do what it wants to at the border. I don’t know if they’re trying to create a little Iraq at the border, I’m not sure what they’re trying to do at the border, but that’s basically what Real I.D. does. Quickly, why this is so terrifying is a matter of process. I mean, the bill itself is a monster. And I think that there’s certain people in Congress that have been itching to pass something like this. They have tried time and time again last year. It didn’t work. And now they’re trying to get it through quietly with the appropriations bill, but just historically, the last time Congress made sweeping anti-immigrant measures was in 1996, and they did it the exact same way. They couldn’t get it to pass through the House and Senate independently, so they tacked it onto an appropriations bill. A conference committee got together at midnight, they made final changes, and kabbam, you get an anti-immigrant bill that is having lasting impacts on us. So that’s briefly what it’s about.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the likelihood now of being able to get the Senate or Bill Frist to pull this out of conference legislation?

AARTI SHAHANI: Well, that’s part of what I think is so scary about the process right now, because we’re over here, we’re all dying to know what’s going to happen, but it’s closed door. Everything we’re hearing from little peeps of information in D.C. is this is going through. And that’s crazy, because last week, we thought, okay, the Senate did not vote to include it, it’s not going to go through. But at this point, it seems it actually might go true. And so, I mean, just if I can, I want to get right to the point, whether or not it goes through, we have to try our best to stop it, because I would hate to see people not knowing about it until it’s passed and the damage is done, and then we mourn the fact that our Constitution doesn’t matter, people can’t drive in this country without proving that they’re citizens, etc., etc. But for anyone that does have a moment, the one little thing people can do is call the White House comments line at (202) 456-1111, and give a comment. Say that you’re against it. They actually might be counting these things. It might matter if enough people are aghast, they can actually stop it. They can say — you know, just in terms of the types of things this will permit if it’s passed. With habeas, for example, habeas is like the emergency valve you pull when the government is doing something wrong to you. It’s the thing that you file to say, “My arrest is unlawful, my detention is unlawful, my deportation is unlawful.” And Real I.D. would take habeas away, so there’s no safety valve anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: What happens to asylum seekers?

AARTI SHAHANI: The same thing. I mean, there undue — I mean, excuse me, extremely harsh and ridiculous barriers post on asylum seekers. So, for example, you could be someone who’s fleeing genital mutilation or a corrupt government, have plenty of documentation, but at some point it won’t matter anymore. Like, it’s just ridiculously high barriers. The one little thing that people might not realize, as well, about it is that with the driver’s license provisions, there are insurance companies around the country that are like, this is crazy. Why would you want people to drive without a license? And people are going to have to drive without a license. I mean, we don’t ride bicycles in America, we drive cars, you know?

JUAN GONZALEZ: And beside calling the White House, what else can listeners who would like it weigh in on this do?

AARTI SHAHANI: They can also call the Capitol switchboard and try to talk to members of the appropriations committee. The number for that is (202) 224-3121. If you want more information, there’s plenty online about it. You can visit FamiliesForFreedom.org. But I think that the other thing just to point out is that in the Senate, Democrats have had absolutely no backbone about this stuff. Feinstein of California actually tried to pass a sense of the Senate bill to stop immigration provisions from being thrown into the military appropriations, and Chuck Schumer, our own Chuck Schumer in New York, decided not to support that. So you have certain — a small pocket of Senators that are saying, listen, we’re not saying we’re for it or against it, we’re just saying we have to have a debate. And then you have people like Schumer, that theoretically governs a state of immigrants, that is not even standing up for that.

AMY GOODMAN: Aarti Shahani, I want to thank you very much for being with us, of the immigrant advocacy group, Families for Freedom, here in New York.

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