WASHINGTON – Hoping to beef up border security, President Bush signed legislation Tuesday that he said will prevent terrorists, drugs and illegal immigrants from entering the country but does not restrict the flow of commerce and tourism.
"No nation can be totally secure or more secure unless we're well protected, and unless our borders are well screened. We must know who's coming into our country and why they're coming. We must know what our visitors are doing, and when they leave. That's important for us to know; the knowledge is necessary to make our homeland more secure," Bush said in a White House ceremony.
The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act calls for the development of machine-readable, tamper-proof passports and requires foreign visitors to carry documents that use biometric technology, like fingerprint and retina scans. Bush said the measure will not only help keep out people who don't belong in this country, it will help keep track of visitors while they are here.
The bill provides the authority to hire 400 more Immigration and Naturalization investigators and inspectors processing the 500 million people that cross U.S. borders each year. The bill hikes the pay of border patrol agents and creates a database of suspected terrorists that would be accessible at every entry point, and against which every person entering the country would be checked.
The bill also bans the issuance of visas to people from countries considered to be sponsors of terrorism, unless a special finding is made that the individual is no threat to this country.
The bill has some new rules for colleges and universities, requiring them to make sure foreign students are complying with the terms of their visas, and to report if the students stop showing up for class. Universities had been authorized to provide the information before, though enforcement was limited, but now with an online system, the information should be easier to input and access.
The student visa rule, which also makes sure students are enrolled in a university before the visa is granted, was proposed after the Sept. 11 terrorist investigation revealed that several of the hijackers who slammed planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field were in the United States on student visas but were not attending classes.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, voted for the bill but said that the country must make sure that it does not lead to other problems.
"This is a step in the right direction in doing the kind of thing that we're ultimately going to have to do to secure our borders and make sure we take national security of this country and put it first and foremost in perspective," Reyes, a former border patrol agent, said. "But we need to be careful not to militarize the border because it does two things that I think are negative. First it affects our troops and their readiness. Secondly, it gives the border communities the equivalent of martial law to contend with."
The bill did not include language that the president wanted to allow some illegal immigrants sponsored by their employers or families to stay in the United States while they seek legal residency.
Bush said he intends to work with Congress to get that legislation passed.