WASHINGTON — Citing problems exposed by the Boston Marathon bombings, senators weighing amendments to a sweeping immigration bill agreed Tuesday to boost security provisions around student visas.
The Senate Judiciary Committee agreed by voice vote to an amendment by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa meant to ensure that border patrol agents at U.S. ports of entry have access to information on the status of student visas.
The committee action follows recent revelations that a student from Kazakhstan accused of hiding evidence for one of the Boston bombing suspects was allowed to return to the U.S. in January without a valid student visa.
The student visa for Azamat Tazhayakov had been terminated when he arrived in New York on Jan. 20. But the border agent in the airport did not have access to the information in the Department of Homeland Security's Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, called SEVIS.
Grassley's amendment would require the Department of Homeland Security to certify that data from SEVIS is transferred into the databases used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at U.S. ports of entry. If that is not done within 120 days of enactment, issuing of student visas would be suspended.
"This will plug a loophole in terms of the tragic Boston Marathon bombing," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., an author of the immigration bill. "It really strengthens the bill and shows that our bill ... is going to make things better in terms of terrorism."
The committee also agreed to a second Grassley amendment aimed at cracking down on fraud in the student visa program. Two of the Sept. 11 terrorists entered the U.S. on student visas and Grassley said that demonstrated problems with the program. His second amendment, also approved by voice vote, would tighten accreditation requirements for schools hosting foreign students and prohibit flight schools not certified by the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Aviation Administration from offering student visas.
The action came as the Judiciary Committee met for a second day to plow through 300 amendments to a bipartisan immigration bill that would secure the border, remake legal immigration and workplace enforcement, and put the estimated 11 million immigrants living here illegally on a path to citizenship.
On a day of grab-bag action, authors of the bill also banded together with other senators to turn back GOP efforts to rewrite provisions of the bill dealing with high-tech workers.
And the committee agreed to allow 10,500 new visas for African and Caribbean nations to partially make up for the elimination under the bill of a different visa program relied on by African nations. The Congressional Black Caucus had protested elimination of that program.
On the high-tech visas, lawmakers voted down several Grassley amendments that would have added more requirements for employers trying to bring high-tech workers to the U.S., as well as one by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to increase the visa supply.
The legislation's authors said the amendments could have jeopardized support for the overall bill by striking at one of the fragile compromises at its core.
But the high-tech language in the bill, which would allow employers to bring many more workers to the U.S. while adding restrictions aimed at protecting U.S. workers, remained in question Tuesday because of amendments still pending from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Hatch's amendments would make the language more favorable for high-tech companies, but he said he'd hold off on offering them in hopes of reaching a compromise first.
The committee also voted down a GOP amendment that would have required biometric screening – such as fingerprinting – to track people entering and exiting the country before anyone here illegally could get permanent residency. Supporters of the bill said it would be unrealistically expensive and their bill took a more realistic route by calling for photo IDs that could be electronically read.
Border security was also the hot topic at the White House, where Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske met with representatives from 10 law enforcement groups, including the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Sheriffs Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The White House said Napolitano made the case that overhauling U.S. immigration laws will help secure the border by freeing up officers to spend more time on national security threats.