The Bush administration has agreed to give states extra time to develop the secure driver's licenses required by the Real ID Act of 2005, according to draft regulations for the license requirements issued March 1.
Under Real ID, states must ask applicants for new or renewed driver's licenses to prove their address, date of birth, and legal immigration status with government-issued documents. States must then verify the validity of the documents presented to them.
The proposed regulations would allow states to request an extension until December 31, 2009, to begin issuing the new IDs, but all Americans would need to carry compliant licenses by 2013 to access federal buildings or fly on commercial airlines. The original deadline for implementation was May 2008.
Several states have opposed the Real ID requirements, stating that Congress did not provide money to meet the requirements or enough time to develop the necessary document databases. Advocacy groups have criticized Real ID, saying it is an unfunded mandate and resembles a national ID card.
According to the draft regulations, the cost of setting up the system will be about $14.6 billion to states and about $7.8 billion to individuals. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will allow states to allocate up to 20 percent of Homeland Security Grant Program funds (money given to states for building and sustaining national preparedness capabilities) toward implementation of the Real ID requirements.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plans to relax passport requirements for children crossing at land and seaports as part of Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) requirements that go into effect in 2008.
Under the new proposal, which is open to public comment, U.S. and Canadian children ages 15 and younger, with parental consent, will be exempt from the requirement to carry a passport when traveling by land or sea between the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda.
Instead, children will be able to enter the United States with a certified copy of their birth certificate, though a passport will still be required when traveling by air, in accordance with the initial phase of WHTI.
Children ages 16 through 18 traveling with school, religious, cultural, or athletic groups and under adult supervision will also be exempt and permitted to travel with only a birth certificate.
The new rules are expected to take effect as early as January 1, 2008, although recent legislative changes permit a deadline extension until June 2009.
Many members of Congress and immigration analysts were cautiously optimistic after the 2006 midterm elections, believing the chances for comprehensive immigration reform would improve greatly under Democratic leadership. However, it appears the change in leadership has not greatly strengthened the case for comprehensive reform in the House.
In recent congressional hearings, Senate committee members continued to voice support for comprehensive reform, while House committee members reiterated their support for improved enforcement before considering other issues.
Bipartisan support for comprehensive reform in the Senate was evident in one recent Judiciary Committee hearing, aptly titled "Comprehensive Immigration Reform." Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), who chairs the immigration subcommitte and sits on the Judiciary Committee, is expected to introduce legislation soon, but negotiations between senators are taking longer than expected.
To avoid further conflict, Kennedy is considering using the immigration bill the Judiciary Committee agreed on last year as a starting point, rather than introducing a revised plan for reform. Meanwhile, a group of GOP senators began meeting with DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez in mid-March to develop features of an immigration reform package that could garner widespread support.
On the House side, Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is expected to introduce a version of comprehensive legislation, but as he was stripped of his seat on the Judiciary Committee (a move he attributed to his willingness to compromise with Democrats on immigration reform), he will have limited control of such a bill once it is introduced and referred to committee.
Citizenship Bill Would Stop Proposed Fee Increases
Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama (D-IL) introduced legislation in March that would halt proposed fee increases for immigration services, including the citizenship application fee.
The legislation would amend the law so that fees could be used only to cover costs directly related to application processing. In January, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) proposed fee increases that would raise the cost for naturalization 80 percent, from $330 to $595 for adult applicants and from $255 to $460 for children.
Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), USCIS is permitted to charge application fees to recoup costs for immigration services, as well as to cover unrelated agency costs.
"We believe that the fees immigrants pay to have their applications processed should cover the direct costs of that process," Obama explained, "but it is neither necessary nor fair for them to cover all of the costs the agency bears for all applicants." Federal appropriations would be used for nonrelated costs, according to the bill.
The bill would also allow citizenship officials to take certain circumstances, such as age and education level, into consideration in evaluating test performance.
In addition, USCIS would be required work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to expedite background checks, in hopes of encouraging more eligible immigrants to apply for citizenship.
Preparations for Cuban Migrants. The U.S. Department of Defense is spending $18 million to prepare the U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay for a possible flood of migrants from the Caribbean. While the space would be used to house migrants from any part of the Caribbean, Cuban President Fidel Castro's illness and the subsequent transfer of power to his brother have made the preparations more urgent. In 1994, U.S. officials housed more than 53,000 Cuban and Haitian migrants in tent cities at Guantánamo. The $18 million would fund construction of facilities to house about 10,000 migrants, with the ability to quickly expand capacity if needed.
GAO on Secure Border Initiative. Two Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports criticize the expenditure plan for SBInet, the high-tech border security component of the Secure Border Initiative. According to GAO, the plan is too vague in several areas and lacks adequate measurement and accountability controls. GAO is concerned that these inadequacies, coupled with high costs and ambitious time frames, could prevent the program from delivering on promised capabilities and benefits on time and within budget. The reports further cite that the program does not satisfy certain legislative conditions and regulatory requirements.
Immigration Sweeps. U.S. immigration enforcement officials and the Internal Revenue Service have charged the executives of Rosenbaum-Cunningham International, Inc. (RCI), a janitorial services company used by chain restaurants such as Hard Rock Café and ESPN Zone, with evading taxes, committing fraud, and harboring unauthorized immigrants. Immigration officials also arrested 195 unauthorized immigrant workers in 18 states and the District of Columbia in an overnight raid in February. The executives allegedly failed to pay $18.6 million in various federal employment taxes between 2001 and 2005.