* Major U.S. airports would be first to install equipment
* Negotiations continue over high-tech visas
By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, May 20 High-tech systems for
tracking the movements of immigrants and other foreigners when
leaving the United States would be installed at major U.S.
airports under a plan approved by a congressional panel on
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-5 for an amendment
to a wide-ranging immigration bill that would require the
installation of devices to check immigrants' fingerprints at the
10 busiest U.S. airports within two years of enactment of the
Checks currently are made at airports for foreigners
arriving and re-entering the country but not when they leave.
"It's just a matter of having records we can keep so we know
where we're going," Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah told
reporters of his successful amendment.
But opponents questioned whether the move would improve the
ferreting out of foreigners who have overstayed their visas and
expressed concerns that it could open the door to broader
fingerprinting of travelers.
If the "biometrics" systems at major airports work out, they
would be expanded to more airports across the United States and
eventually be used at land and sea ports as well, under the
The Senate panel is trying to wrap up work by mid-week on a
nearly 900-page immigration bill that aims to ratchet up
security along the southwestern U.S. border with Mexico and
establish a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal
immigrants already in the United States.
The bipartisan bill also would create new visa system so
that farmers, high-tech firms and other American companies could
get better access to both low- and high-skilled foreign workers.
If the measure is passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee
this week, it could be ready for debate in the full Senate next
month - a debate that could take several weeks to complete on
the first major overhaul of U.S. immigration law in 27 years.
The U.S. has been trying for years to tighten the monitoring
of entries and exits by visa holders. An estimated 40 percent of
the 11 million illegal immigrants are people who have overstayed
their visas, according to government estimates.
But the implementation of equipment at ports has lagged.
Last week, the Senate Judiciary panel defeated an amendment
from Republican Jeff Sessions that would have required the
installation of biometric equipment at all U.S. ports before any
of the 11 million undocumented could be eligible for permanent
residency, or a green card.
Senator Sessions of Alabama, an outspoken opponent of the
immigration bill moving through the Democratic-controlled
Senate, argued on Monday that the United States has the ability
to fully implement the program now.
Saying that many local police departments already use the
technology in their cars, Sessions said, "I'm getting ... tired"
of the delays.
The issue is sure to be debated again in the full Senate, as
even some Democrats have concerns over major airports' ability
to set up the screening equipment within the two-year time
frame. Some also worry that U.S. citizens could eventually be
subjected to the fingerprinting.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who chairs the
Judiciary Committee, voted against the amendment.
HIGH-SKILLED WORKER VISAS
Meanwhile, senators were working behind the scenes on a
controversial move to increase the number of foreign workers
that would be available to U.S. high-tech firms.
Hatch has emerged as one of the most influential lawmakers
working on the immigration bill and has introduced amendments to
make it easier for companies to hire foreigners.
In an attempt to secure his vote, Democratic Senator Charles
Schumer of New York is trying to broker a deal between
technology companies and the AFL-CIO labor organization on the
high-skilled H-1B work visa program.
During a break in the committee's work, Hatch told reporters
that he must have changes to the high-skilled worker visa
program, otherwise "you're just pushing these businesses off-
Lobbyists for technology companies and trade associations
said the two senators were nearing a deal. But sources close to
the AFL-CIO disputed industry's characterization.
Even if Hatch gets what he wants on the H-1B program, he
said there are other amendments he would insist upon during the
Senate floor debate.
Without those amendments, which he refused to elaborate on,
"I will vote against it (the entire immigration bill) on the
floor," Hatch said. One amendment is thought to require that
undocumented residents who win legal status must provide their
own health insurance and not take advantage of government-backed
(Additional reporting by Rachelle Younglai and Caren Bohan;
Editing by Paul Simao)