Border tech bill on fast track

The Senate began debate April 15 on legislation that would tighten security at the nation's borders using high-tech tools to track visitors and turn away those who might be a threat to U.S. security.

The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act is on a fast track, and lawmakers hope to get it passed this spring. It would provide $3.5 billion over three years to tighten the security net at the nation's borders, including $1 billion for fiscal 2003. The House has already passed the bill.

"We have to use technology to the greatest effect we can — with well-trained people and good technology at the entry level," Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) said on the Senate floor April 15.

"With this new technology, we will be able to track when individuals acquire a visa and follow that individual while they are in the United States," he said.

The legislation would require machine-readable, tamper-resistant visas that use standardized biometric identifiers. The high-tech tools will enable the Immigration and Naturalization Service to track the arrival and departure of foreigners and more easily identify those who overstay their visas.

It also would create an interoperable data system to give law enforcement agencies access to the latest information about a visa holder. Lawmakers are moving quickly in the wake of disclosures that INS issued visas to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Six months after the terrorist attacks, the visas arrived at the Florida flight school where the men had been taking lessons.

The legislation is co-sponsored by 61 members of the Senate and has the support of various special interest groups. In a recent letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wrote, "We strongly support the provisions to increase resources for technology and personnel for our Immigration and Customs Services, enhance data sharing capabilities, expand pre-clearance and pre-inspection programs. These changes are long overdue."

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