- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2002

The Senate is about to debate a bill that creates tough hurdles for immigrants and visitors seeking to enter the United States, yet few oppose it, and that's atypical.

Immigration legislation is usually contentious and avoided whenever possible because business and ethnic interests "benefit from illegal immigration," and there are "deep divisions" over existing policy, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

"Congress has generally been unwilling to deal with immigration matters," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican.

"What's different now is that is that we didn't have September 11 before," says Angela Kelley, deputy director of the pro-immigration National Immigration Forum.

She echoes the sentiments of many on both sides of the immigration debates when she adds: "The stakes have never been higher than they are now. The threat of illegal Mexican immigration is laughable compared to what we face. The public is demanding that Congress make good."

The current measure, which creates barriers for undocumented visitors as well as terrorists, is called the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2001. It was introduced by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, a proponent of liberal immigration policies, and is co-sponsored by conservative Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, who, his spokesman says, "rarely agrees with Mr. Kennedy about anything."

The proposed legislation covers a huge range of security issues. It deals with information systems, intelligence gathering, visa processing in consulates, staffing at border crossings and more. And many of the bill's provisions concern matters Congress has acted on in recent years but didn't really push.

For instance, Congress told the Immigration and Naturalization Service to increase border control staffing, especially on the northern border. That didn't happen.

And Congress ordered the INS to track the comings and goings of the roughly 29 million foreigners who annually enter the country on temporary visas and to locate the 11 million who do not go home. That didn't happen either. Congress scrapped the program in 2000, four years after it was mandated.

By all accounts, making good in this instance will require a giant effort and lots of money, much of which is proposed in President Bush's homeland security budget. For example, the proposed legislation would:

•Require the State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, the INS and its parent, the Department of Justice, to develop a "data system" with "name-matching capacity" that contains individual identifications, plus intelligence information and criminal records. The database would be used to screen people seeking U.S. visas or applying to immigrate.

•Increase the number of Border Patrol officers and raise their pay. It would ensure that Border Patrol and customs agents receive "essential training and cross-training" and learn to use newly authorized high-tech equipment.

•Provide $150 million to the INS to develop and improve the high-tech sensors and other gadgetry used to spot border crossers in remote areas.

•Specify that there must be background checks on aliens seeking admission to the United States from any country designated as a "state sponsor of terrorism." The countries currently designated as terrorism sponsors are Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.

•Require the attorney general and secretary of state to issue machine-readable, tamper-resistant entry and exit documents with biometric identifiers. The bill demands that countries participating in the visa-waiver program issue passports with those characteristics. Biometric identifiers are parts of the anatomy, such as fingers, the retina or the face that present unique patterns. The visa-waiver program allows people from Denmark, Finland, the United Kingdom and 26 other countries to enter the country for 90-day visits without visas.

cOrder that commercial airlines provide specified information about all passengers and crew members before arrival and departure from the United States. The bill provides U.S. inspectors with added time to clear aircraft by removing a 45-minute deadline for making security checks.

Government consultant James R. Edwards, co-author of "Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform," has been tracking the progress of the Kennedy-Kyl bill. He says it is likely to pass because "no one is opposed to it."

"We've lived for years with lax enforcement of immigration regulations as legislators turned a blind eye regarding border security. But September 11 really has caused political conversions," he said.

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