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House May Make Asylum Policy Harsher

Making it easier to deport immigrants seeking political asylum will get a vote in the House this week, a few days after a federal commission said that many of them already are being treated like criminals.

The House is scheduled to begin debate Wednesday on legislation that would make it easier for judges to reject asylum claims and prevent immigrants from using state driver's licenses as identification for boarding airplanes or entering federal buildings.

The bill, by House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (search), also would give the Homeland Security Department (search) sweeping new powers to tighten border security and track illegal immigrants.

Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., agreed to drop similar measures from an intelligence reorganization bill in December after winning promises from House and Senate leaders that it would get an early vote this year. He said it is needed to prevent terrorists from using asylum claims to enter the country.

In a report Tuesday to Congress, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said screeners at airports and other ports of entry send most foreigners who lack proper documentation back to their country immediately.

Only those who express a "credible fear" of return are considered for asylum and many of them are treated like criminals, in some cases strip-searched or held in shackles or solitary confinement, the commission found.

Craig Haney, a University of California at Santa Cruz (search) expert on the psychological effects of incarceration, and who helped prepare the report, said the conditions are unnecessarily severe.

The commission also found that the system, run by the Homeland Security Department, varies widely in who is detained and who is granted asylum, based on where they landed in the United States, their country of origin, which immigration judge heard their case and whether they had a lawyer.

All asylum seekers are supposed to be detained for up to 48 hours while immigration officials weigh whether they have a legitimate claim, said Victor Cerda, acting director of the department's Office of Detention and Removal. That policy was intended to ensure that terrorists do not get into the country, he said.

"Historically, in the asylum process, we have seen incidents of fraud and abuse, and at times the system has been used by people with terrorism intentions," Cerda said.

He said the report reveals "the challenge we face to maintain the history of being a nation of asylum seekers, but at the same time highlights the challenge of balancing that with our national security issues."

Sensenbrenner's bill faces widespread opposition in the Senate. Senators who back President Bush's proposal to help employers by giving temporary legal status to illegal immigrants already here want to put the two issues together.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay backed Sensenbrenner's approach Tuesday, describing border security and immigrations as separate issues.

"There are gaping holes in our border security system that three years after 9/11 still remain untouched by any kind of reform," said DeLay, R-Texas. "The asylum process in this country has been misused and abused and we are closing the loopholes."

Religious and human rights groups oppose the asylum proposals, fearing they will prevent people fleeing religious persecution from finding refuge in this country.

Opposition to the drivers license measures also is mounting. The National Governors Association and state motor vehicle department administrators sent a joint letter Tuesday to House leaders opposing the bill. The National Conference of State Legislatures also opposes the bill.

The groups said states already must improve drivers license security with new standards to be developed in 18 months. They said Sensenbrenner's bill would impose costly technology and security requirements beyond "the current capacity of the federal government."