By Alexander Bolton - 05/14/13 11:14 PM EDT
Members of the Senate’s Gang of Eight fought off poison-pill amendments during a second day of marking up comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the Judiciary Committee.
But signs of strain have begun to show within the group.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) 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 immigrants estimated to be in the country illegally.
“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 [Tuesday] morning’s vote.”
Two Republican members of the Gang of Eight, Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.), 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 Democratic members of the Gang of Eight on the Judiciary panel who voted against the amendment.
It represents the first significant public disagreement between Rubio and other members of the group.
“I don’t know what it says. I don’t know if he’s setting himself to walk away or if he’s setting himself to have a fight with the rest of the gang,” said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for NumbersUSA, which opposes the legislation.
The differences over the implementation of a biometric tracking system don’t appear serious enough to split the bipartisan coalition, but it signals the strain it will come under in the weeks ahead.
The Florida senator has played the key role of promoting the comprehensive immigration reform measure to skeptical conservatives, and he vowed to fight for the biometric tracking system as the bill moves forward.
His support is likely crucial to passing the bill with enough bipartisan backing to give the issue strong momentum in the House.
“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.”
Members of the Gang of Eight could face another test Thursday when Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) may put up for votes a series of amendments designed to loosen restrictions on the H-1B visa program for high-skilled workers.
Rubio supports more generous allocations of H-1B visas to help the high-tech industry. But he has been careful to avoid an open battle with Durbin, who has repeatedly raised concerns about skilled immigrant workers displacing U.S. citizens.
Durbin and Hatch clashed over the visa issue Tuesday.
“Some of your amendments, I’m afraid, go in the opposite direction,” Durbin told Hatch during the committee’s markup.
Hatch warned that the tech industry could throw up obstacles to the legislation if the committee failed to strike the right balance on visas for high-skilled workers.
“There’s a whole high-tech world that’s getting up in arms if we don’t do this right, and they alone could make this bill very difficult to pass,” Hatch said.
The Utah Republican said he wanted to work with the Gang of Eight and Judiciary Committee to explore a potential compromise before pushing for action on his amendment.
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 those in the country illegally have overstayed their visas, and he argued the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill should not rely on a weaker system using just 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,” Feinstein said. “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 fail-safe 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.
Jennifer Martinez contributed to this report.