May 20, 2013 -- Senators amended the bipartisan immigration bill on Monday to require all non-U.S. citizens to be fingerprinted when leaving the U.S. through the country's 30 busiest airports.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved several changes to the bill during a markup session that's expected to stretch into the evening. The fingerprinting system, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), is a gesture towards Republicans who favor stronger enforcement methods against unauthorized immigration. It passed on a bipartisan 13-5 vote.
The Hatch proposal would require the so-called "biometric" entry/exit system to be put into place at the 10 U.S. airports with the highest volume of international air travel within two years of the bill's passage. After six years, the system would be expanded to 30 airports, pending a study of the system's effectiveness.
Non-citizens entering the country are already required to submit fingerprints, but federal officials currently rely on a combination of flight records and databases to determine who has left.
Last week, the Senate panel rejected a broader biometric system backed by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a chief opponent of the Gang of Eight bill.
Supporters of the biometric system say the language is necessary to enforce a law that's been on the books since 2001 to track foreign citizens entering and leaving the country. An estimated 40 percent of the undocumented population in the U.S. entered legally on visas, but overstayed them.
However, members of the Gang of Eight, including Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), said that a full biometric tracking system could cost as much as $25 billion to implement, and would thus prove too expensive. Schumer supported the more limited Hatch proposal on Monday.
"Moving to a biometric system at our airports will bolster our national security," Schumer said in a statement. "It will not be easy to get this cutting-edge system up and running at all 30 of the biggest airports, but we believe it's doable in the next five years."
Sen. Marco Rubio, a key Republican member of the Gang of Eight, said he would fight to include a biometric system in the bill after the Sessions amendment failed last week. In a statement Monday, he applauded the amendment as a "good start" but indicated he would push for further biometric provisions.
"I will continue to fight to make the tracking of entries and exits include biometrics in the most effective system we can build when the bill is amended on the Senate floor," he said.
Rubio does not have a seat on the Judiciary Committee, which is considering the amendments.
The committee approved another GOP-backed amendment that would terminate the asylum or refugee status of individuals residing in the U.S., if they returned to their countries of origin "without good cause," as determined by the Department of Homeland Security.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Gang of Eight member, sponsored the proposal and called it a necessary change in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. The accused bombers were of Chechen ethnicity and their father reportedly sought asylum status to move his family to the U.S.
But immigration-reform advocates were frustrated by the amendment, especially since included a carve out for Cubans, who are automatically granted legal status if they reach the shores of the United States.
Immigrant rights activist Gaby Pacheco tweeted that "folks in the audience all jumped" out of frustration when the amendment passed.
"OH MY WORD! How in the world did that pass? Graham 1? #Fearshouldneverdrivelegislation," she continued. "Now, Sen. Graham is a friend, & I love my Cuban community (husband is Cuban) but excluding Cuban's just doesnt seem fair Graham 2 #CIRMarkup."
The committee has hours of work left to go and some of the most controversial amendments have yet to be addressed. That includes a provision backed by Hatch, a potential swing vote, that would expand the number of H-1B visas available for high-skilled workers. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) the chairman of the judiciary committee, is also pushing an amendment that would allow gay and lesbian Americans in a long-term relationship to sponsor foreign partners for green cards.