Senators to debate immigration bill amendment on foreign students

PART 1 | Immigration reform under Reagan: Twenty-seven years ago the United States implemented a plan that offered amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. Hear from one of the architects of the bill and key players as they discuss where it went wrong. (The Washington Post)

A Senate panel took up amendments to a comprehensive immigration bill Tuesday and was expected to consider a proposal aimed at tightening the monitoring of foreign students in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.

The measure, offered by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), would require the Department of Homeland Security to transfer all student visa information to border control agents at ports of entry. Aides on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is overseeing the amendment process, said the proposal was inspired by reports that alleged accomplices of the accused Boston bombers were living in the country on expired student visas.

In opening the committee’s session Tuesday, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the panel’s chairman, said a key consideration for him in the immigration bill was that “the pathway to citizenship” for illegal immigrants in the United States “not be a false promise.” He called on senators to reject efforts to set up procedures that he said would be “nothing but obstacles to that goal.”

Before considering Grassley’s amendment, the committee took up changes related to border security. On a voice vote, the panel approved an amendment offered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would limit the use of drones along the border with Mexico to three miles of the border in the San Diego and El Centro sectors.

The committee members then rejected 12 to 6 an amendment offered by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) that would have required the Homeland Security Department to implement a system to verify the entries and exits of visa holders using biometric identifiers such as fingerprints and iris scans. The amendment was aimed at reducing visa overstays, which account for an estimated 40 percent of the illegal immigrant population.

See which amendments were adopted into the immigration bill

Sessions argued that his provision would force the government to obey a 1996 law that called for implementing such a biometric system. But opponents, including Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said the system would be too expensive to establish in the short term. They said the immigration bill includes a provision to strengthen entry and exist verification using “biographic” data such as photographs.

Another Sessions amendment aimed at reducing the influx of legal immigrants under the legislation was defeated on a 17 to 1 vote. The senator from Alabama argued that the arrival of millions of job seekers acts to drive down wages and adversely affects U.S. citizens. Schumer and Graham 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.

Immigration advocates have feared that Republicans would seize on the Boston attacks, allegedly carried out by two men who immigrated as youths with their Chechen parents, to rally opposition to the sweeping bipartisan immigration bill.

Grassley has been a leading critic of the legislation, and he cautioned last month that the Senate should move deliberately in the wake of the marathon bombings to determine potential weaknesses in the immigration system before making changes.

“Given the events of this week, it’s important for us to understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system,” Grassley said at a hearing in April. “How can individuals evade authorities and plan such attacks on our soil? How can we beef up security checks on people who wish to enter the U.S.? How do we ensure that people who wish to do us harm are not eligible for benefits under the immigration laws, including this new bill before us?”

The Senate Judiciary Committee began the second day of amendments shortly after 10 a.m. Last week, the committee debated 32 proposed changes to the immigration bill related to border security, adopting 21.

Leahy 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.

At a fundraiser with Democratic donors in New York on Monday, President Obama said: “I am absolutely confident that if we stay with it, we are going to be able to get immigration reform done this year.”

The Grassley proposal will be considered along with several dozen others related to regulating the number of immigrants who are allowed to enter the United States through legal channels to seek employment, also known as “future flow.”

The proposals are a critical component of the bipartisan legislation, which aims to avoid the problems created in 1986, when Congress approved the last sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration system.

Critics of that plan said lawmakers failed to set in place a program to meet — and adequately regulate — the demand for visas in the workplace, helping lead to a wave of illegal immigrants now estimated at 11 million.

Senate staffers familiar with Grassley’s student visa amendment described it as acceptable to the eight senators — four Democrats and four Republicans — who developed the legislative framework for the immigration bill. The four members of that group who serve on the Judiciary Committee are expected to support the adoption of the amendment.

The immigration bill includes provisions to add hundreds of thousands of new visas for low-skilled and high-tech workers. Senators on both sides of the aisle have filed amendments to either expand or contract the visa levels proposed in the bill.

Any changes that are made by the committee 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 so-called H-1B program. If companies exceed that percentage, they would have to pay the additional workers higher salaries, as well as financial penalties to the government.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) has filed several amendments to increase the number of high-tech visas, but his amendments will not be debated until Thursday, Senate aides said. That will give the bipartisan group that developed the comprehensive bill time to negotiate over which amendments to support and which to oppose, the aides said.

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David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.
William Branigin writes and edits breaking news. He previously was a reporter on the Post’s national and local staffs and spent 19 years overseas, reporting in Southeast Asia, Central America, the Middle East and Europe.
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