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Senate Votes to Tighten Rules of U.S. Entry for Foreigners

Security: Students in particular would be more closely monitored in a bill expected to be approved by the House.

April 19, 2002|JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Senate overwhelmingly approved measures Thursday to enhance U.S. border security, including new rules for monitoring foreign students, more effective use of intelligence data and 2,000 extra immigration investigators and border inspectors.

The legislation, promoted as a response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, passed by a vote of 97 to 0.

The House, which has passed a similar bill, is expected to approve the Senate legislation this week and send it to the White House for President Bush's signature.

Advocates said that the legislation, projected to cost more than $3 billion over three years, would improve the nation's security without compromising freedoms or endangering the economy.

Compared to last year's USA Patriot Act, which gave the administration sweeping new powers to prosecute suspected terrorists, the Border Security Act is a narrower set of measures designed to strengthen America's traditionally relaxed entry system.

For example, it would lift the 45-minute time limit for U.S. inspectors to process incoming flights, a requirement that had placed the convenience of air travelers ahead of methodical inspections at U.S. ports of entry.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), one of the main co-sponsors, described the legislation earlier this week as "the most important bill the Senate can pass to fix what is a very broken system."

Yet despite its broad support, the bill had bogged down in the Senate, where Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) complained that it was being pushed with inadequate scrutiny.

In addition, a provision was omitted at Byrd's insistence that would have temporarily allowed immigrants who have overstayed their visas to apply for U.S. residency while still inside this country, rather than returning home to submit such requests.

The provision, known as 245(i), is ardently supported by immigrant rights advocates and had been included in the House version of the border security bill. Byrd and other critics had assailed it as an inappropriate concession to illegal immigrants and a provision that could be exploited by terrorists.

Byrd voted for the bill Thursday while still questioning the cost estimates and noting that the provisions would still need to go through the appropriation process. Proponents of the bill said that the new INS and border personnel would be added gradually, over a five-year period, and that much of the funding had already been approved.

The bill requires that the visas and passports used by foreign travelers to this country contain unique personal data, such as fingerprints, and be made with modern, tamper-resistant technology to foil counterfeiters.

It would require schools in the U.S. to notify the Immigration and Naturalization Service if a foreign student fails to report for class within 30 days of the registration deadline.

And it mandates that the Bush administration introduce an intelligence data system in which the INS and the State Department, which issues visas, would have better access to information on terrorists held by such agencies as the CIA and FBI.

"Today the Senate approved landmark legislation to improve our border security and fix a visa-entry system shown to be inefficient, inadequately enforced and riddled with loopholes that have allowed suspected terrorists to enter the United States with little difficulty," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a main co-sponsor along with Feinstein, Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).

"With passage of this comprehensive and bipartisan measure," Kyl added, "we can finally report to the American people that Congress has acted to make it tougher for terrorists to enter this country and do them harm."

Altogether, the bill enjoyed 61 co-sponsors.

The legislation would largely prohibit U.S. authorities from issuing visas to nationals from countries that have been classified as sponsors of terrorism. In addition, it would improve training of the Border Patrol and customs agents and mandate U.S. consulates to have active terrorist-lookout committees.

After Sept. 11, State Department officials maintained that they had received little intelligence or law enforcement information about any of the hijackers.

In response, the legislation would call on the administration to create an "interoperable" law enforcement and intelligence data system, providing those who administer visas and those who guard U.S. borders with more timely information on people to watch out for.

"We are looking for a needle in a hayfield, so we have to have this information-sharing," Brownback said Thursday.

In addition to the 30-day requirement for schools to notify the INS if a foreign student does not show up, the bill would require the Justice Department to notify schools that a student had entered the United States.

The measure also would mandate that the INS regularly check on whether schools are following the reporting requirement; schools that fail to comply could lose their authority to accept foreign students.

The student measures were relatively noncontroversial, compared to earlier calls for a hiatus in admitting foreign students or proposals for new restrictions on what foreigners may study after they have entered the United States.

"We believe that these provisions strike an appropriate balance between whatever tightening of the controls may be needed as a result of Sept. 11 while also keeping our country open to foreign students," said Vic Johnson, an official of an association of international educators known as NAFSA.

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