Rubio ‘disappointed’ by Judiciary panel’s rejection of biometric tracking for visas

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a central member of the Senate Gang of Eight, expressed disappointment Tuesday after senators rejected a proposal to strengthen the system for tracking visa holders entering and exiting the country.

The panel rejected a Republican amendment to require a biometric entry and exit system at ports of entry before granting permanent legal status to 11 million illegal immigrants.

“Immigration reform must include the best exit system possible because persons who overstay their authorized stay are a big reason we now have so many illegal immigrants,” said Alex Conant, a spokesman for Rubio. “We wanted the Judiciary Committee to strengthen the legislation by adding biometrics to the new exit system, and we were disappointed by this morning’s vote.”

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Two Republican members of the Senate Gang of Eight teamed up with 10 Democrats on the committee to defeat the amendment, which was sponsored by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). It failed by a vote of 6-12.

Rubio split with Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), two other members of the Gang of Eight who voted against the amendment.

The Florida senator has played the crucial role of promoting comprehensive immigration reform to skeptical conservatives and vowed to fight for the biometric tracking system as the bill moves forward.

“Senator Rubio will fight to add biometrics to the exit system when the bill is amended on the Senate floor,” Conant said. “Having an exit system that utilizes biometric information will help make sure that future visitors to the United States leave when they are supposed to.”

Over the past two decades, Congress has called for the establishment of a biometric measuring system to track visa holders exiting the country using distinctive characteristics such as fingerprints and iris scans. The proposal has also received the endorsement of the 9/11 Commission.

Sessions said a biometric system is necessary because 40 percent of illegal immigrants have overstayed their visas, and argued the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill should not rely on a weaker biographic system using photographs.

But Schumer warned the Sessions proposal would cost as much as $25 billion to implement and said biometric tracking systems have experienced problems in test runs.

Sessions and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said the cost estimate was inflated and based on faulty projections provided by the airline industry, which has long opposed full implementation of biometric tracking for visa entries and exits.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) expressed interest in the Sessions amendment but ultimately voted against it. She hashed out a quick deal with Schumer to further address the issue on the Senate floor.

“I am concerned that the identification be the best identification we can come up with,” said Feinstein. “The fraud is enormous in this area. My understanding is, if you use the iris of the eye and these other biometric features, you have essentially a failsafe mechanism.”

“You can always change the iris of your eye, too,” countered Schumer.

Democrats said the Sessions amendment would have delayed the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants by years.

A Democratic aide cited an estimate by the Department of Homeland Security in 2008 that found the cost of a biometric exit system for airports alone would cost between $3.1 billion and $6.4 billion.

— This story was updated at 12:34 p.m.

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