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Senate panel approves immigration changes requiring fingerprint system at 30 U.S. airports

Every immigrant leaving the United States through one of the 30 biggest airports would have to be fingerprinted by federal authorities under an immigration reform measure that won early committee approval in the Senate on Monday.

The plan approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee is a concession to Republicans and some Democrats who support establishing a nationwide biometric tracking system at all U.S. air, sea and land ports of entry, a key recommendation made by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to track potential terrorists entering or leaving the country.

The committee rejected a similar GOP proposal last week that would have forced the Department of Homeland Security to establish a biometric immigration tracking system at every U.S. air, sea and land port of entry. The committee’s Democrats and the four members of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” who wrote the immigration bill and sit on the panel said such a plan would be too expensive.

But bipartisan negotiators sought a compromise after Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) — a key GOP member of the “Gang of Eight” — said he supports the concept of a nationwide biometric system and would fight for the proposal once the immigration bill reaches the full Senate.

Under the new agreement sponsored by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), DHS would need to establish a fingerprint tracking system at the nation’s 10 largest international airports within two years of the bill’s approval. The program would expand to the next 20 largest international airports within six years.

See how immigration trends have changed over the years

Rubio deemed the proposal “a good start,” but said he would keep pushing for a nationwide system. “If we have an exit system that utilizes biometric information, it will help make sure that future visitors to the United States leave when they are supposed to,” he said in a statement.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), a key Democratic negotiator, said in a statement that establishing the system at 30 airports “will not be easy” but will be “doable in the next five years.”

The Judiciary Committee met in a marathon session Monday seeking to complete debate on the immigration bill by week’s end. The panel by Tuesday should be on to the most controversial aspects of the bill regarding how to handle the legal status of the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, according to committee aides.

The panel also agreed Monday to changes that would essentially bar immigrants who were granted asylum from returning to their home country, a proposal drafted in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Senators unanimously approved an amendment by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) that would terminate the asylum or refugee status of anyone who returns to his or her home country. Graham introduced the amendment after investigators discovered that Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev had traveled last year to Russia and Dagestan after his family sought and was granted asylum from Dagestan in 2002.

In the months prior to his trip, the FBI had opened and closed an investigation of Tsarnaev based on tips from Russian authorities. A U.S. counterterrorism task force later received a warning about Tsarnaev’s overseas trip and the warning was delivered to a single U.S. Customs and Border Protection official based in Boston. The warning went unnoticed until after the April 15 bombing that killed three people and injured more than 250 others near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

The committee last week approved another GOP amendment inspired by the Boston attack that would prevent lapses in information-sharing about foreign students when their immigration status changes while they are in the United States.

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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