WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate on Wednesday agreed to permanently adopt a program for verifying the immigration status of those seeking work in the United States, previewing what could be a fight over revamping the troubled immigration system this year.
The Senate agreed to make permanent the voluntary “E-Verify” program as part of a $42.9 billion bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security for fiscal 2010.
The Obama administration had sought only a two-year extension of the program, which uses Social Security numbers and immigration records to verify immigration status.
“It will identify quite a number of people who are illegally here seeking to work,” Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, author of the provision adopted by voice vote, said on the Senate floor. “The system should be made permanent.”
Some Democrats who say the system is inadequate and are pushing for a more rigorous biometric identification process tried to block the amendment but lost the vote 53-44.
The original bill called for a three-year extension.
The Senate will not necessarily have the final word as the House version of the bill only provided a two-year extension. The two chambers would have to work out those differences before anything becomes law.
Senate Democrats hope to start work on reforming the whole immigration system later this year, but the White House, which is focused on its top priority of revamping U.S. healthcare, has cast doubt on whether that debate will begin this year.
Congress has failed to pass reforms amid differences over how to deal with 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country and demands that border security first be addressed.
Some hard-line Republicans want to first tighten the border and deport illegal immigrants because they believe they drain the country’s resources. Democrats and some moderate Republicans are open to finding them a path to citizenship.
Some 134,000 employers use the voluntary E-Verify system and it has processed more than 6 million queries since October 1, 2008, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The agency on Wednesday said that it would seek to require all government contractors to use the system starting September 8.
Senators also voted 54-44 to add a provision to the funding bill that would require 700 miles of reinforced fencing along the U.S. border with Mexico be in place by the end of 2010, not just virtual fencing and vehicle barriers.
Editing by David Storey