Washington • The federal government would start collecting fingerprints from foreigners at the nation’s busiest airports under a plan sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch.
The Senate Judiciary Committee accepted the Utah Republican’s amendment to a broad immigration reform bill Monday, saying it is a financially feasible step toward a universal biometric security system at all land, air and sea ports.
“It is a good proposal, as we all said we would love to move to a biometric system but we have to make sure it works,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who supported Hatch’s plan, characterizing it as a compromise.
It didn’t satisfy some Republicans, led by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who argue for a biometric exit system at all airports, border crossings and ports within a year or two after the bill becomes law, saying that the cost is just “an excuse.”
The United States now collects fingerprints from foreigners traveling to the country at consulates and embassies, but doesn’t do so when they leave.
The immigration bill, sponsored by four Republicans and four Democrats, would immediately require the government to scan visas and passports for those leaving the nation.
Hatch’s amendment would give the Transportation Security Administration two years to set up the new fingerprint system at the 10 busiest international airports, including those in Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles. Then, three years later, Homeland Security would study the effectiveness of the program and, unless Congress acts, the biometric data would extend to another 20 international airports, including Salt Lake City’s.
Those top 10 airports account for 70 percent of the international travel by foreigners, according to 2011 data from the Department of Transportation.
The TSA would collect fingerprints or other biometric data, like an iris scan, only from foreign nationals.
“Biometric data provides the government with certainty that travelers (and not just their travel documents) have or have not left the country,” Hatch’s office said in a statement.
Utah’s senior senator wasn’t at the hearing when the committee approved his amendment on 13-5 vote.
Later in the day Hatch suggested his biometric pilot program is an attempt to show that the nation isn’t going to let people continue to game the immigration system.
“That would make great strides to help let people in the world know we are not dunces anymore,” Hatch said. “We are not going to just keep playing this game.”
Hatch is a swing vote on the bill and its sponsors are trying hard to win his support, which they believe would add some conservative legitimacy to the measure as it moves forward. The legislation would bolster border security, create a mandatory employment-verification program and create a path to citizenship for 11 million unauthorized immigrants.
It’s estimated that 40 percent of those 11 million people stayed after their visa expired.
Congress first tried to implement a biometric exit program back in 1996, and again after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. Both attempts failed in part because of the cost of the program. The Department of Homeland Security estimated in 2008 that it would take somewhere between $3.1 billion and $6.4 billion to collect fingerprints at international airports.
Airlines and airports have fought against a biometric system because they didn’t want to pay for the equipment or be in charge of collecting the data.
Hatch’s amendment states the government would gather the fingerprints and it would be paid for out of the bill’s trust fund, which is largely comprised of visa fees.
The committee also agreed to an amendment offered by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an original sponsor of the bill, to provide a list of people who have overstayed their visa to law enforcement officials and encourage police to capture the immigrants to start deportation proceedings when they have the financial resources to do so.
Pot farms • The Senate’s immigration bill also now includes tougher criminal penalties for growing marijuana on public lands after the Judiciary Committee unanimously accepted an amendment offered by Hatchon Monday.
The new criminal penalties largely target Mexican cartels that for years have set up one-season marijuana farms on Forest Service and BLM land throughout the western United States, including throughout southern Utah.
“We need to enhance penalties for marijuana cultivation on public lands, that will ensure fewer drugs enter the market and protect our natural resources,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said.
Hatch’s plan, drafted with assistance from Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Utah, would create a new aggravated penalty for growing marijuana on federal lands and impose a sentence that must be served after the criminal served time for an underlying charge for manufacturing or distributing the drug.
It also would create new penalties if people were caught diverting water, using certain fertilizers or using weapons to protect the marijuana plants.
“I have no interest in helping someone steal our federal lands, steal our natural resources to do something that is still illegal,” said Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Fake ID • At Lee’s request, the Committee also amended the immigration bill to ensure police could continue investigating immigrants who attempt to use fraudulent documents to enter the country or get a job.
The bipartisan sponsors of the immigration-reform bill welcomed the changes offered by Lee, which reestablished existing laws that they inadvertently dropped.
One amendment made it a criminal offense to knowingly use a fraudulent document to bypass E-verify, the federal program where employers can check on the immigration status of prospective workers.
A second amendment reinstituted the law against attempting to use a doctored passport to enter the nation.
These were the first immigration amendments offered by Lee that the committee accepted. He is one of four committee Republicans to announce their opposition to the comprehensive-reform effort, and the Utahn is expected to vote against the bill when it comes up for a final vote later this week.
Two Republicans — Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona — are sponsors of the bill. While Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, hasn’t indicated his position and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is leaning toward voting for the bill but hasn’t made a final determination.
All of the committee’s 10 Democrats are expected to support the overarching bill.