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Senators tighten student visa rules in immigration bill

The Senate Judiciary Committee amends the proposal in response to the Boston bombings. It also rejects some changes that threatened to upend a bipartisan agreement.

May 14, 2013|By Lisa Mascaro and Brian Bennett, Washington Bureau
  • Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, meets with the panel's ranking Republican, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, before Tuesday's hearing on the immigration reform bill. Grassley's amendment on student visa requirements was adopted by the committee.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee,… (Douglas Graham / Roll Call )

The Senate Judiciary Committee amended the sweeping immigration bill Tuesday to tighten student visa rules in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings.

The committee, which is trying to get through the 844-page bill by the end of the week, also fended off changes that threatened to derail the delicate compromise reached by a bipartisan group of eight senators who drafted the legislation.

The lengthy meeting of the committee unfolded as a core group of House Republicans turned up the volume against the immigration overhaul.

One thing the committee members could agree on was clamping down on student visa fraud.

Senators approved an amendment offered by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) requiring that customs officials be immediately notified when a student visa is terminated. One of the students charged with obstruction of justice in the Boston bombing case, Azamat Tazhayakov, had been allowed to enter the U.S. in January even though his student visa was no longer valid. That was because of a 30-day grace period to allow students to correct their status when the visa is terminated.

"This will plug a loophole in the tragic Boston Marathon bombings," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Another amendment would stiffen penalties for educational institutions engaged in student visa fraud and tighten requirements at flight schools, like those used by the Sept. 11 hijackers.

But senators rejected two amendments from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) that would have required a biometric exit visa system, such as fingerprinting, saying the costs and logistics — especially for airports — would be overwhelming.

The immigration bill involves a series of complex political and policy trade-offs, including tougher border control and new guest-worker programs in exchange for a path to citizenship, in 13 years, for the estimated 11 million people now living in the U.S. who entered illegally or overstayed visas.

Much of the day's session revolved around the levels of legal immigration that would be allowed, particularly for high-skilled workers.

The debate illustrated the deep philosophical divisions within the Republican Party on whether immigrant workers help or hurt the economy.

Sessions, a leading opponent of the immigration overhaul, sought to limit the number of newcomers, arguing that they would depress worker pay and take American jobs.

"You can have too many workers in a country and it can adversely impact wages," Sessions argued.

On the other side was Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a tea-party-aligned son of immigrants, who sought to bolster the number of visas allowed for workers in high-technology fields by 500%.

Both efforts were rejected, as senators from the bipartisan "gang of eight" who drafted the bill — four of whom are on the committee — voted together against the changes.

"What we have tried to do, all of us on a bipartisan basis, is camp out on this center line," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the group.

Democrats, though, also exposed divisions within their ranks. Durbin and other leading liberals on the committee expressed interest in protecting U.S. workers from immigrant labor, forming a potential alliance with Grassley, the committee's top Republican.

Several Democratic senators noted that they would like to support Grassley's amendments, including one to require a "good faith effort" to hire American workers that was supported by organized labor. But they feared doing so would derail the bipartisan compromise already worked out by the eight senators.

As senators were working, a group of conservative House Republicans protested outside the Capitol — some of them citing a report from the conservative Heritage Foundation that said immigrants would be a net cost to taxpayers. Republican leaders have distanced themselves from the report, and one of its authors has been criticized for his past comments on certain racial groups.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has been leading the House opponents, said he hoped to convert House GOP leaders — who have largely held their fire on the Senate bill — to his side.

"America cannot afford to open massive immigration floodgates any more than it can support an amnesty plan," Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said.

"They have a gang of eight; we're going to have a gang of millions," said Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), "that will rise up against it."

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

brian.bennett@latimes.com

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