House Republicans unveiled a new package for reauthorizing and reforming the nation’s warrantless surveillance powers, pushing forward text while prepping for a floor battle over controversial provisions.
Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which allows the government to spy on noncitizens located abroad, is set to expire in April, as the Republican conference last year settled on a short-term extension following a failure to unify around competing packages.
Monday’s text, though an amalgamation of the two bills, more closely aligns with the original proposal from the House Intelligence Committee over that of its Judiciary competitor, focusing on more reforms at the FBI to address misuse of the powerful spy tool.
But it does not include Judiciary’s hope for a warrant requirement — something deemed a red line for the intelligence community but nonetheless a top priority for privacy advocates in Congress.
Though FISA 702 only allows the government to surveil foreigners, their communications with Americans are often swept up in the process, creating a database found to be misused by the FBI, which has already undertaken a number of reforms amid criticism.
Like its Intelligence predecessor, the new text would severely limit the number of FBI personnel who can query the database, forcing more oversight from some 550 supervisors or lawyers before agents can tap into the database to gain information on Americans.
And while it includes no broad warrant requirement, it does require law enforcement to get a warrant if they’d like to search the database to find evidence of a crime.
The bill also includes numerous provisions that would further protect members of Congress or other high-profile officials, including one that would require a lawmaker’s consent before gathering information for a “defensive briefing” about a lawmaker being targeted by a foreign entity. It requires the FBI to notify a member of Congress, with some limitation, if they have been queried in the 702 database.
The bill also includes provisions that target Section 701 of FISA, the portion of the law that allows surveillance of Americans after they secure a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Those portions of the bill seek to strengthen requirements with Carter Page in mind, the Trump campaign adviser who was spied on by the FBI, securing a warrant with documents that contained numerous omissions. It bars law enforcement from using opposition research or media reports as a basis for a warrant, an effort to avoid repeat incidents.
Some controversial measures, including a provision to screen any noncitizen “being processed for travel to the United States,” have been removed from the latest bill.
But the process of bringing the bill to the floor will push the House to return to a previously floated idea from Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) to do a queen-of-the-hill-style debate format that would allow for consideration of amendments — including a potential amendment on a warrant requirement.
To privacy champions and advocates, a warrant is the only way to protect Americans’ rights.
But the intelligence community — with the backing of the White House — sees a warrant requirement as effectively ending the program, blinding law enforcement to lawfully collected information they may have to act on real time.
Complicating the bill’s consideration further are reports from Politico it may be partially considered during a closed session.
“Make no mistake: a secret session is completely unnecessary. National security legislation is openly debated in every Congress. There have only been 6 secret sessions in the House since 1812,” Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
“Secret law is anathema to democracies, and making law in secret is the next worst thing. Open debate is a core feature of our democratic system. But intelligence committee leaders prefer to work in the shadows because it gives them a strategic advantage.”
A group of 43 mayors from around the country are asking the Biden administration and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to permanently extend work permits for migrants, citing economic concerns and shelter space.
In a letter delivered Monday to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director Ur Jaddou, the mayors and county executives asked for automatic extensions for existing work permits of at least 540 days.
“Without this, hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers will lose their work authorization, businesses will lose staff, and our cities and counties will face an increasing challenge to provide shelter to the public,” wrote the mayors.
Those signing the letter include New York Mayor Eric Adams (D), who at times has generated ire in the immigration advocacy world for his rhetoric around migrants, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson (D) and Denver Mayor Mike Johnston (D), who’s been publicly vocal about his city’s struggles to house migrants.
“Over the past few weeks, Denver has seen record-high numbers of migrants arriving in our city, and very few have the ability to work and make a living for their families,” said Johnston.
“This has created simultaneous humanitarian and fiscal crises for our city, forcing us to look at significant budget cuts and reduction in services. We know that the ability for migrants to work is critical to Denver’s success, and it is imperative that [the Department of Homeland Security] take immediate action to prevent even more migrants from losing their work authorization.”
The request to extend work permits comes months after the sunset of a USCIS rule from 2022 that had extended automatic renewals to last 540 days.
As of October, those automatic renewals reverted to last only 180 days, meaning some foreign nationals who renewed their work papers after the rule’s sunset will start losing their right to work legally this spring.
“Local businesses are still struggling to address the current labor shortage — and cannot handle further disruption to their operations from losing the employees they already have. A longer extension will allow immigrants to keep their jobs and businesses to operate without interruption,” wrote the mayors.
“New York City thrives on the diverse and dedicated contributions of these community members and stripping people of their right to work is simply un-American. I’m hopeful the federal government acts swiftly to protect the stability and security of hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers and their families,” said Adams in a statement.
In September, the agency amended its manual to allow extensions of up to five years for Employment Authorization Documents (EADs) issued to certain categories of foreign nationals, including asylum-seekers, but automatic extensions are currently limited to 180 days.
A spokesperson for USCIS did not immediately return a request for comment.
The length of EADs is important because it allows immigrants and their employers to plan ahead — six-month permits limit the kinds of jobs people can apply for — and because a series of other benefits are tied to the work permit in many jurisdictions.
“My work permit gave me access to all the things I need to live and provide for my family — a job, a driver’s license, health care, and more. It is critical that the government extend work permits for immigrants who are waiting for their applications to be processed, and are scared their work permits won’t come in time,” said Charity R., an asylum-seeker from Nigeria and member of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project.
The short-term renewals also tie in to another issue dogging USCIS: application backlogs.
USCIS’s goal is to process EADs in three months on average.
According to the agency’s numbers, processing times for EADs were reduced by 32 percent between the end of fiscal 2022 and the end of fiscal 2023, from 6.8 to 4.6 months on average.
On Monday, USCIS announced it has reduced overall backlogs for the first time in more than a decade — it currently has 4.3 million cases pending that have exceeded their target processing times, compared with about five million pending cases at the end of fiscal 2022.
The mayors recognized USCIS’s efforts, in particular granting the five-year EADs to certain groups, like some recipients of Temporary Protected Status, a program that allows nationals of certain countries in crisis to live and work in the United States.
“While laudable, these actions will not help immigrants who are currently in the work permit renewal backlog and whose EADs are about to expire,” they wrote.
Those backlogs can mean long wait times without the ability to work for some migrants, and they’re made worse by accumulation of applications as short-term work permits expire.
The long waits often generate artificial deadlines for immigrants who can lose their jobs from one day to the next.
“I waited over a year for my work permit renewal application to be processed. It was scary — I was afraid every day that I would lose my job if my work permit didn’t come in time,” said Charity R.
The mayors called on USCIS to permanently implement the 540-day extensions, or at least extend 2022’s temporary rule until backlogs are sorted out.
“If DHS does not implement a permanent change to the automatic extension, any temporary extension should be for a period of no less than three years, to allow sufficient time for USCIS to work through the extensive work permit renewal backlog. We ask that you act swiftly so that the communities we represent do not experience the destabilizing effects of immigrant workers falling out of the workforce,” they wrote.