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Senate panel approves student visa fix, rejects biometric tracking in immigration bill

Senators on a key panel continued slogging through a lengthy list of proposed amendments to a comprehensive immigration reform bill Tuesday, even as the legislation's opponents reminded congressional leaders that they'll continue to fight against "amnesty."

The 18-member Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved an amendment proposed by top Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa to address student visa security issues highlighted in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.  

That measure, which requires that student visa information be shared in real-time with Border Patrol officers at the nation's major ports of entry, is designed to repair the communication error that led to a friend of bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev entering the United States despite the expiration of his student visa. 

While the panel adopted a handful of proposals by GOP members, other Republican efforts to change the legislation failed, including one provision backed by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Gang of Eight member and top Republican negotiator on the immigration reform effort. 

The committee rejected an amendment proposed by Sen. Jeff Sessions, a leading opponent of the bill, that would have required that visa holders be verified using biometric screening -- like fingerprints or eye scans -- when exiting the country.

While Democrats said they were sympathetic to the need for more security at the nation's ports of entry -- a proposal recommended by the 9/11 Commission Report and mandated by Congress but never enforced -- senators also warned of an eye-popping price tag of billions of dollars to implement the system.

Immigration reform proponents also objected to the amendment's mandate that the massive security overhaul be in place before undocumented immigrants can apply for probationary legal status.

Mark Wilson / Getty Images file photo

Sen. Jeff Sessions proposed two amendments to the immigration bill that were rejected by the committee.

That proposal failed 6-12.

Rubio, who is not on the Judiciary Committee but was an important GOP drafter of the original legislation, was "disappointed" that the biometric tracking proposal was not adopted and will fight for it when the bill comes to the Senate floor, a spokesman said. 

"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 Rubio spokesman Alex Conant in a statement. "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." 

Sessions, who has proposed a total of 49 changes to the bill, failed to win support from other committee Republicans for a proposal that would have capped the number of legal immigrants receiving green cards at 1.2 million per year. That measure failed, with all others on the 18-member panel voting against it.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has also been a vocal critic of the bill as written, argued that the Sessions amendment would undermine legal immigrants -- a "fundamental pillar of our country."

Cruz proposed an amendment that would have dramatically increased caps on visas available for high-skilled foreign workers, whom he called an "unambiguous good for our country." Bill drafters -- mindful of the delicate negotiations between business and labor groups that led to a compromise annual cap of 65,000 -- said the high maximum could hurt American workers seeking the same jobs. The amendment fell 4-14.

As the committee's markup negotiations were under way, a contingent of House Republicans held a press conference a few blocks away to remind House and Senate leaders that they'll continue their vocal opposition to a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants.

"There's another viewpoint here" said Iowa Rep. Steve King, one of the loudest critics of "amnesty" on Capitol Hill. "It is not the one that's being stampeded in the Senate and may be stampeded in the House."

King -- who described the immigration bill as "far, far worse than Obamacare" predicted a rising tide of opposition to the bill in the Republican-led House -- an assessment echoed by Texas Rep. Steve Stockman.

Alluding to the eight senators who collaborated behind closed doors to draft the legislation now being amended in the Senate, Stockman said that a "Gang of Millions" will make its voice heard to defeat the sweeping bill.

"The people are stronger than the Gang of Eight," he said.

At the end of Tuesday's session, the committee had accepted a total of 36 amendments. Over 300 were submitted by the committee's members. 

The markup is expected to continue Thursday morning. 

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