Senators reject biometric tracking in immigration reform

A bipartisan group of senators voted against adding a biometric system to the sweeping immigration reform bill that would ensure people on tourist, student and other temporary visas leave the country when they are supposed to. The failed amendment was one of the most controversial additions to the bill considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee at Tuesday's hearing.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, backed the amendment that would have required the government to use fingerprints and other biometric data to track visitors when they leave the country at airports and other ports of exit. Democrats, including Sens. Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin, argued the system would be too expensive to implement. It was voted down 6-12, with two Republicans joining the 10 Democrats in opposing it. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who helped draft the original bill, said he opposed the amendment because the government hasn't shown "the will or the desire" to implement the system, and he doubted including it in the bill would change that.

Despite some conservative opposition to the immigration bill, attempts to significantly alter the bill have failed in the committee mark-up process so far.

The current immigration reform bill seeks to legalize most of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country and prevent future illegal immigration though an employment verification system and more border security measures. About 40 percent of the unauthorized immigrants currently in the country entered legally and then overstayed their visas, which Sessions argued raises national security concerns.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress passed a bill mandating that the government institute a biometric tracking system for people on temporary, nonimmigrant visas such as for tourism. Twelve years later, the system still hasn't been implemented due to cost and other complications.

The Department of Homeland Security estimated it would cost up to $6.4 billion to implement a biometric tracking system in the nation's airports, according to a report in USA Today. It's unclear how much it would cost to install similar technology in the country's land ports, where nearly 80 percent of people enter the United States.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said at the hearing that he was concerned that requiring the biometric system would delay the citizenship process for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants who will benefit from the bill. The amendment said none of those immigrants would be able to apply for citizenship before the biometric system was put in place. The current bill lays out a 10-year waiting period for citizenship for the group.

A spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and a member of the "Gang of Eight" that drafted the bill, told The Hill he was "disappointed" with the vote, and that he would try to reintroduce it once senators begin debating the bill on the Senate floor.

Another rejected amendment, introduced by Sessions on Tuesday, sought to significantly reduce future legal immigration. Sessions argued it would help the American economy to keep legal immigration numbers down. All of Sessions' colleagues on the committee, Republican and Democrat, voted against the measure.