Hill moves to halt border-crossing system

A bipartisan panel of nine senators and congressional representatives last week voiced their support of legislation that would freeze an effort by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to install an automated system to keep track of individuals crossing U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico. The panel speaking at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration opposed the Automated Entry-Exit Control System which was mandated by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 to decrease the number of illegal immigrants and illegal drugs entering the country.

The nine lawmakers along with the majority and minority leaders of the subcommittee said they oppose the system because it will add hours to the time needed for casual travelers on both sides of the U.S. northern and southern borders to enter or leave.

Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) who appeared on the panel said installation of the system could create backups of up to 30 miles at the border of the Niagara Falls region of his state because people crossing the border would be required to show identification most likely a smart card containing biometric data and information on the individual. He said it could take up to a day for INS to process that amount of traffic.

"This can only be interpreted by our friends in Canada as mean-spirited " D'Amato said of the system.Subcommittee chairman Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) said he believed the system could easily be circumvented by drug cartels and he raised questions about its cost. "To the best of my knowledge the cost of the technology required to undertake this automated data collection and analysis is unknown as such technology does not even exist yet " he said.

Abraham last week introduced the Border Improvement and Immigration Act of 1997 which would exclude U.S. land borders from using the system. The legislation also calls for an extensive study of the costs benefits and feasibility of the system.

The legislation which has widespread bipartisan support in both houses of Congress also has been endorsed by the Clinton administration. Michael Hrinyak deputy assistant commissioner for inspections at INS said the administration has proposed similar language asking to eliminate the mandate for the system at land borders and seaports and requesting a feasibility study. He said the proposal would not delay the installation of the system at airports.

"The overall feasibility of such a program on our land borders must be assessed " Hrinyak said. "We recognize [that the system] may result in huge delays at the borders require sizable infrastructure investments and may have adverse effects on trade the environment and the quality of life in border communities."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was the only government official who spoke in support of the 1996 legislation at the hearing. Feinstein said she is concerned that a delay in the system's installation would hinder the government's efforts to reduce the tide of illegal immigrants and drugs from Mexico to California."I would fight like a tiger anything that would weaken or lengthen the time [needed] for getting this thing under control " she said. "The need to expedite action ought to be clear."

Hrinyak said the system if its schedule holds is expected to go online along the southern U.S. border in October 1999. He said the system will take longer to install at the northern border and at seaports because the agency does not have the infrastructure in place there as it does along the U.S./Mexico border.

Hrinyak said the system would read encrypted data on a smart card. The card would include a machine-readable fingerprint that could be matched to a database containing the fingerprints of convicted criminals.Hrinyak also said the agency has not determined how it could make the system work without requiring all individuals crossing the borders to wait while guards check identification documents. He added that the Clinton administration opposes issuing cards to all U.S. citizens who want to cross the borders.

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