The Senate panel plowing through a huge immigration reform bill on Capitol Hill agreed on Tuesday to tighten the monitoring requirements of foreign students in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing.
The amendment would require the Department of Homeland Security to transfer all student visa information to border control agents at the nation’s 329 ports of entry. The measure, proposed by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), was prompted by an alleged accomplice of the accused Boston bombers, who was in the country on an expired student visa.
Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the proposal during a lengthy session Tuesday. The hope is that it would prevent lapses in information-sharing about foreign students when their immigration status changes while they are in the United States. Officials probing the Boston bombing discovered discrepancies in the status of Azamat Tazhayakov, one of the three friends of bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Tazhayakov, who is alleged to have helped Tsarnaev dispose of material from a college dorm room, left the United States in December, and his student visa status was terminated in January after he was dismissed from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. But U.S. Customs officials allowed him entry in January because they were unaware that his visa had expired.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a key member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” that wrote the underlying immigration bill, said the Grassley proposal would “patch dangerous cracks” in the student visa system exposed by the Boston attack.
Grassley has been a leading critic of the overall immigration reform effort and cautioned last month that the Senate should move deliberately after the bombing to determine potential weaknesses in the system before making changes.
The immigration bill includes provisions to add hundreds of thousands of new visas for low-skilled and high-tech workers. The committee considered several proposals Tuesday to expand or contract the visa levels proposed.
The panel rejected another Grassley proposal to require businesses to make a “good-faith” effort to hire Americans before seeking out high-skilled immigrant workers, and a plan forcing companies dependent on such workers to continue counting them as part of immigrant worker quotas even if the worker is seeking permanent legal status.
Senators also overwhelmingly rejected a proposal by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) that would have limited the number of high-skilled immigrants who could enter the country. He argued that the arrival of millions of job seekers drives down wages and adversely affects U.S. citizens in the workplace. But Schumer and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), another Gang of Eight member, said illegal immigration depresses wages much more and touted the bill’s provisions favoring “merit-based” legal immigration, which they said would better meet the needs of the economy than the current system based largely on family ties.
On Tuesday, the second day of committee debate on the measure, proponents were once again able to fend off the most drastic changes set forth by opponents and critics.
Changes to the bill’s provisions regarding worker visas could upset a pair of fragile agreements hashed out by the bipartisan coalition. On the low-skilled side, Senate negotiators worked with the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor union, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to create a new “W” visa program for up to 200,000 temporary workers in jobs such as waiters and janitors.
The program would start in 2015 with 20,000 visas and expand to 75,000 by 2019, after which a new federal bureau would make annual recommendations based on employment data. The number of visas would rise if unemployment is low and contract when it spikes, and the foreign workers would be paid salaries equivalent to American workers.
On the high-tech side, up to 180,000 visas would be available to foreign engineers and computer programmers at U.S. tech companies, which could hire up to 15 percent of their workforces under the H-1B program. If companies exceed that percentage, they would have to pay higher salaries, as well as financial penalties to the government.
Other GOP amendments rejected Tuesday included a Grassley proposal that would have required all visa applicants to undergo in-person interviews even if they are deemed a low security risk and a Sessions measure that would have established a biometric identification system to track people entering and exiting the country.
The Sessions amendment would have fulfilled a key recommendation by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission and forced the government to obey a 1996 law that called for implementing a biometric system. But Democrats deemed the proposal prohibitively expensive.
The panel approved an amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that limits the use of drones along the border with Mexico to three miles of the border in the San Diego and El Centro sectors, and a proposal by Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) that restricts when and how U.S. authorities can repatriate illegal immigrants to ensure the safety of people being returned to their home countries.
The committee on Tuesday considered 29 changes to the 884-page bill and approved 15. It has so far considered more than 60 of about 300 proposed amendments.
Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) has said he hopes to complete the amendment process by the end of the month, potentially sending the bill to the full Senate in June. House Republican leaders are weighing whether to consider a comprehensive immigration bill or break the bill into pieces, a tactic opposed by Democrats and the White House.
Complicating the decision for House leaders is the sustained opposition of conservative Republicans, including Rep. Steve King (Iowa), who said Tuesday that the bipartisan Senate proposal is “far worse” than President Obama’s health-care bill, because it cannot be undone.
Flanked by fellow GOP Reps. John Fleming (La.), Steve Stockman (Tex.) and Louie Gohmert (Tex.), King said Democrats pushing for immigration legislation are “seeking to establish another monolithic voting bloc” of mostly Hispanic immigrants. “Somehow the Republicans who are for this completely ignore this fact,” King, an outspoken conservative leader, said.
The House Homeland Security Committee plans to debate a GOP proposal Wednesday that would require the Department of Homeland Security to establish a comprehensive border security strategy. The measure isn’t one of the immigration proposals being reviewed by the House Judiciary Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over the issue, but aides on the homeland security panel said their measure could be included as part of immigration legislation debated in the House.
William Branigin and Aaron Blake contributed to this report.
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