Senate Panel Keeps Up Effort To Reshape Immigration Overhaul

Senators on the Judiciary Committee spent their second full day slogging through proposed amendments to the bipartisan immigration overhaul. Tuesday's subject was the method of awarding visas for those wanting to come here to study and work.

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Efforts to reshape an immigration bill continue in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Lawmakers took up many issues yesterday - monitoring foreigners traveling in and out of the country, work visas for highly skilled immigrant workers - to give a couple of examples. The legislation's bipartisan backers continue to fend off major changes.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Over the past two decades, Congress has passed six bills mandating an entry-exit system for foreign visitors using hard-to-falsify biometric markers, such as fingerprints or irises.

And yet, as Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions pointed out to the Senate Judiciary Committee, there's still no system to keep track of who's left the country, and the system that does track entries uses biographic data, such as names and birthdates.

SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS: So this is a big, big hole in the system, and it's gone on for years and years, and I have to tell you, colleagues, this is one reason the American people have so little confidence in any promises we make.

WELNA: Sessions proposed making the bill's promise of green cards in 10 years for 11 million unlawful immigrants contingent on first establishing a biometric entry-exit system.

Texas Republican John Cornyn noted the proposal had the backing of Florida Republican Marco Rubio, a key member of the bipartisan Gang of Eight sponsoring the bill.

SENATOR JOHN CORNYN: He happened to share with me that Walt Disneyworld in Florida uses a biometric system to insure people don't commit ticket fraud. And I would say that if biometric systems are that easy, affordable and good enough for the Magic Kingdom, they ought to be good enough for the United States of America.

WELNA: But Gang of Eight leader Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, was not impressed.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: It is true that Disneyworld used a fingerprint, and then when Disneyland went ahead to use their system, they went to a picture, because they thought it was better.

WELNA: Sessions' biometric measure went down in a 12 to six vote; he acknowledged the bill's backers have the upper hand, at least for now.

SESSIONS: They will accept modest amendments, don't make much difference, but they don't accept anything that seriously deals with the integrity of the bill.

WELNA: Still, it was clear not all in the Gang of Eight were entirely happy with their bill. One such member is South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: The fights that we had among ourselves about the number of legal immigrants available to our workforce, high skill and low skill, was one hell of a fight. And we came out with numbers that I can live with, but quite frankly, I wish were larger.

WELNA: So does Texas Republican, Ted Cruz, he offered a measure drastically boosting the bill's numbers for highly trained worker.

SENATOR TED CRUZ: I think it makes some positive steps with regard to legal immigration, but I don't think it goes nearly far enough, and this amendment is designed to go substantially farther, in particular, to take the current cap on H1B high skilled visas from 65,000 and to increase it by 500 percent to 325,000.

WELNA: Gang of Eight member Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, gave the proposal a thumbs-down.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN: What Senator Cruz is proposing, unfortunately, eliminates many of the protections built into this bill for American workers. That to me is the wrong way to go. I want a balanced approach, an approach which honors immigration, but first honors the right of American workers to be employed.

WELNA: Cruz's amendment was defeated in a 14 to four vote.

Meanwhile, half a dozen House Republicans were holding a news conference, denouncing the Senate's immigration bill. One of them was Steve Stockman of Texas.

REPRESENTATIVE STEVE STOCKMAN: They have a Gang of Eight, we're going to have a gang of millions because you can watch this bill as it processes through the house committees that they will rise up against it, and it will fail, because the people are stronger than the Gang of Eight.

WELNA: That showdown could come this summer.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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