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House passes national standards for driver's licenses

WASHINGTON—Getting or renewing a driver's license would take more time and effort under a security measure approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday. The Senate is expected to pass a similar measure next week.

National standards for driver's licenses will discourage illegal immigration and make it harder for terrorists to get documents to evade security, supporters of the bill said. Critics, including some state officials, said the new requirements would be burdensome and expensive, won't enhance security and are a step toward a national ID card.

The license provision is part of a massive $82 billion special spending bill, with $75.9 billion going to the armed forces for Iraq, Afghanistan and other overseas missions. It passed the House 368-58.

The House bill also includes more aid for tsunami victims in Asia, $4.2 billion for the State Department and foreign aid, money to hire 500 more Border Patrol agents and an increase in the one-time death benefit for families of troops killed in combat from $12,000 to $100,000.

That increase is retroactive to Oct. 7, 2001, to cover all those killed in the war on terrorism and in Iraq. Those provisions weren't controversial.

The driver's license requirements and other immigration-related measures drew criticism from immigration advocates and some state officials who said the provisions were included without hearings.

By attaching those provisions to a must-pass spending bill, House Republican leaders "are shoving these extreme measures down our throats," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y.

She said it was an "underhanded attempt" toward establishing a national ID card by setting standards for licenses and requiring states to share data.

Applicants for driver's licenses would have to show proof of citizenship or legal residency, document a home address and provide a photo ID. State motor vehicle departments would have to verify the documents using federal databases, which could end same-day renewals, state officials said.

States would have three years to comply with these requirements. If a state didn't comply, its licenses wouldn't be allowed to be used as identification for boarding planes or entering federal buildings.

A provision added by the House-Senate conference on the bill would allow states to issue licenses to undocumented immigrants—as several states do now—but they would be clearly marked as not for federal use.

Proponents of the bill, led by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the tighter requirements, dubbed "Real ID," were a common-sense security measure worth any inconvenience or extra cost.

Sensenbrenner pointed out that several hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks easily obtained driver's licenses, even after they overstayed their visas, which they used to get through airport security.

He said illegal immigrants' easy access to licenses was "an open invitation for terrorists and criminals to exploit."

Driver's licenses "have become de facto national ID cards, and the federal government has a responsibility to ensure that these cards are secure," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. "Even a few states with lax standards can jeopardize the security of the entire country."

But state officials are wary of the cost. State and federal officials were working on driver's license standards, but that effort was preempted by the bill passed Thursday, said the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

States issue or renew about 70 million licenses a year, and the new requirements could cost states $100 million a year, said Cheye Calvo, who heads the transportation committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"The physical requirements to verify, store and share documents is a significant burden," Calvo said. The bill allows for federal grants to help the states, "but they gave us no real money."

Another provision of the bill would tighten standards for granting asylum. Applicants for asylum would face a greater burden of proof and could be rejected based on any inconsistent statements.

That means an immigration judge could deny asylum to a woman fleeing rape or abuse if she doesn't tell her full story when she first arrives in the United States, said Wendy Young, a director of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children.

"The true targets of the bill are not terrorists, but refugees," Young said.

Sensenbrenner said the provision would help judges "ferret out" fraudulent asylum claims.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): sensenbrenner

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