Biometrics, Visas and Immigration Reform

In building a case for a biometrics requirement, Sessions referred to what he described as a suppressed 2009 report from the Department of Homeland Security. The analysis concluded that a nationwide biometric system “can be done right now” and at a reasonable cost.

By Andrew Thomas | May 29, 2013

Senator Jeff Sessions

Last week, the “Gang of Eight” scored their first win in their drive to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. Three weeks of hearings and debates finally produced, on May 21, a vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee to approve an immigration reform bill that has riled conservatives and yet stands likely to win approval from the full Senate.

After the committee vote, spectators applauded and yelled support for the most sweeping changes to America’s immigration laws and practices in almost three decades. “Yes we can” and “Si se puede” were chanted as the bill’s supporters reveled in their victory.

The Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of eight senators who are the prime movers behind the package, had fully half of its members on the Judiciary Committee. Two of them, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona, are Republicans who joined the Democratic majority and worked to fend off many of the 212 amendments offered in committee hearings.

The bill sets into motion the conferring of eventual citizenship on the nation’s illegal immigrants, conservatively estimated to number some 11 million. Also added to the legislation were enhanced investments for border security and other reforms of the country’s immigration system.

The committee approved the bill by a 13 to 5 vote. Joining Graham and Flake in voting in favor of the bill was a third Republican, Orrin Hatch of Utah. The other “yes” votes were Democrats on the committee. The bill is slated to be debated on the Senate floor beginning the first week of June, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has pledged to move the measure speedily.

In a statement, President Barack Obama praised the committee for passing the bill. He described it as “largely consistent with the principles of common-sense reform I have proposed and meets the challenge of fixing our broken immigration system.”

But most Republicans on the committee were not pleased. They warned that the bill risked a repeat of the mass amnesty and failed enforcement measures ushered in by the Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986. This legislation granted citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants but promises to secure the border with greater federal resources—illusory promises that went unfulfilled.

One of the key issues dividing most Republicans on the Judiciary Committee from other committee members was the use of biometric data for visa exits. Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, a member of the committee who has emerged as the most vocal critic of the Gang of Eight bill, proposed a system to track visas using biometric data at border crossing points. Sessions noted that federal legislation passed in 1996 required the use of biometrics, such as fingerprints, for visa holders at all entry and exit points. The requirement simply has been ignored over the years, he said. Democrats on the committee complained that the requirement has been ignored because it is far too expensive.

Sessions was undeterred. In building a case for a biometrics requirement, Sessions referred to what he described as a suppressed 2009 report from the Department of Homeland Security. The analysis concluded that a nationwide biometric system “can be done right now” and at a reasonable cost.

He also tied the emerging scandal involving the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and its targeting of Tea Parties and other conservative groups to the suppressed report. “(People) don’t trust the government. The IRS can’t be trusted,” he said. “That’s the truth. I’m getting doggoned tired of it.”

Sessions gained an important ally in fellow Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas. The second-ranking Senate Republican and a member of the Judiciary Committee, Cornyn criticized the Democrats’ failure to support a “common sense” requirement to track biometric data for visa exits.

To track who has remained in the country after their visas have expired, Sessions reasoned, federal authorities must have clear, traceable proof of where they are and when they go abroad. He proposed an amendment to the bill that would require all the nation’s airports, seaports, and land ports of entry to collect the fingerprints of all departing foreigners. The committee voted down his proposal in a 12-6 vote.

Members of the panel settled for a much more modest version of the program. Hatch offered an amendment, later approved by the committee, which will require biometric tracking of visa holders leaving the country at the nation’s 10 busiest international airports. The requirement will be expanded to the 30 biggest airports within six years.

This move appeared motivated in large part to continue to secure the support of Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. An important member of the Gang of Eight, Rubio had criticized the bill’s absence of a requirement for biometric tracking.

The partisan divide on the Senate Judiciary Committee and the issues that furthered that division, including the use of biometrics, seem to foreshadow the rift that will likely be seen on the floor of the U.S. Senate in June, and throughout the House of Representatives should the Gang of Eight bill pass out to the other chamber.

Andrew Thomas is a graduate of the University of Missouri and Harvard Law School. Twice elected as Maricopa County Attorney, the district attorney for greater Phoenix, Arizona, Thomas served a county of four million residents and ran one of the largest prosecutor’s offices in the nation. He established a national reputation for fighting violent crime, identity theft, drug abuse and illegal immigration. He is the author of four books, including The People v. Harvard Law: How America’s Oldest Law School Turned Its Back on Free Speech. Mr. Thomas is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.