Union Tribune

April 19. 2002

Senate OKs bill aimed at bolstering border security


WASHINGTON The Senate voted 97-0 yesterday to tighten
controls over visas for foreign students and other international
visitors in an effort to make it harder for terrorists to enter or
remain in the country.

The bill also calls for adding 3,000 border enforcement agents
to be hired over the next five years and orders federal
intelligence and law enforcement agencies to provide more
information to the State Department and Immigration and
Naturalization Service to help with visa decisions. It also calls
for improving pay and training for border agents.

The border security bill now goes back to the House, which
already had passed it in a slightly different form. Lawmakers
expect to easily reconcile the two versions and send it on to the
White House where President Bush is expected to sign it.

The Senate bill sets an October 2004 deadline for developing
and issuing tamper-resistant, machine-readable travel
documents with biometric identifiers, such as fingerprints. It
also requires that equipment to read the new documents be
installed at all the nation's ports of entry by then, providing
border inspectors instant access to law enforcement databases.

The bill requires commercial carriers to provide advance
passenger manifests to U.S. authorities before landing their
planes or ships.

"Our bill provides real solutions to real problems, (and) closes
loopholes in our immigration system," said Sen. Edward M.
Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate immigration
subcommittee and by that right the bill's principal author.

"We recognize that immigration is not the problem, terrorism is," Kennedy added. "We must identify and isolate potential
terrorists, not isolate the United States. Fortress America is not
a solution that we would consider."

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., had single-handedly delayed the
bill since Dec. 19, most recently because it included a
controversial provision that would make it easier for some
people living in the country illegally to get legal status.

The so-called 245(i) provision was dropped from the legislation
and several Byrd amendments were adopted before final passage ensuring his support for the measure.

The bill calls for adding 200 INS inspectors, Customs inspectors
and INS investigators a year until 2006 for a total of 1,000
each. However, the bill does not provide funds for the hiring.
That will have to be approved year by year. The bill also would
beef up State Department consular operations overseas, which
consider visa applications.

Critics question whether the government will be able to develop
and deploy the various technologies required for the new
tamper-resistant visas, entry-exit and foreign student tracking
systems. For that reason, the Senate approved an amendment
yesterday to push the deadline back a year, to September 2004.

Several of the hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 attacks were in
the country on student visas.

The bill also puts pressure on countries whose nationals are not
required to obtain visas to report stolen passports or risk being
suspended from the so-called visa-waiver program.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a key architect of the bill, expressed
"serious concerns" about the visa-waiver program, which she
said allows people from 29 countries to enter the United States
without a visa.

"When you have 23 million people coming in without visas from
29 different countries, it becomes so easy for passports to be
misplaced and for people that are threats to get into this
country," Feinstein said. "I think we have to watch it very
carefully. . . . I, for one, would not have a problem doing away
with the program if we find any more irregularities in it."

Feinstein and fellow Democratic California Sen. Barbara Boxer
voted for the bill.

The bill proved popular with advocates from both sides of the
immigration debate, which is rare. Advocates for reducing
immigration praised the bill as a good first step while advocates
for greater immigration called it restrained and carefully
targeted to avoid causing undue problems for legitimate
international visitors.

"It moves us in the right direction," said Mark Krikorian,
executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think
tank that generally supports tighter immigration practices. The
bill takes aim at millions of visitors who remain in the country
beyond the period permitted by their visas, he noted.

"Visa over-stayers are 40 percent of the illegal immigrants, and
they're obviously a substantial part of the security problem
regarding immigration," he said.

Krikorian cautioned that the bill could divert terrorists from
established ports of entry and to the Mexican border, where
they could attempt to join the flow of illegal immigrants who
elude the Border Patrol.

"We might well see Mexico become a conduit for terrorists trying
to get in," Krikorian said. "If I were a terrorist and the earlier,
easier ways of getting into the U.S. were blocked off, that is
something I'd think about."

Immigration advocate Angela Kelley also praised the bill.

"We think it strikes the right balance between enhancing national security and maintaining our tradition as a nation of
immigrants," said Kelley, deputy director of the National
Immigration Forum.

"It adds layers of security in a way that still permits people to
come to this country to build the American dream, which is
what immigrants do," she said. "But it does an effective job of
stopping the bad guys."

Phil Anderson, a homeland security expert at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said
congressional mandates will not be enough to ensure that
federal agencies share information.

"The problem lies in the culture, in an inherent unwillingness to
share information," said Anderson, adding that his criticism
applied to all the federal agencies who develop intelligence
about terrorist threats.

"It's a power issue," said Anderson. "If the source of your power
is the ability to manage classified, proprietary information, how
willing are you going to be to work with other agencies?"

Anderson said the problem can be solved only if the leaders of
federal agencies work to change the close-to-the-vest culture
that has long impeded cooperative effort.