WASHINGTON – A bill that would tighten restrictions on who can get into the country, and how closely they will be monitored by immigration and security agents, finally has Senate approval and may be on the fast track to the White House.
The White House-backed legislation, which would allow officials to track foreign students more closely and check passenger lists of incoming jetliners, had been in limbo in the Senate since December.
President Bush promised to sign the bill.
"Improving our nation's border security is vital to protecting Americans from future terrorist attacks," Bush said after it passed the Senate on Thursday. "I commend the Senate for passing legislation that strengthens border security and gives our law enforcement officials additional tools to secure our homeland."
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., had blocked the legislation, in part because he thought it needed more debate. After senators allowed him to testify before a subcommittee hearing and make minor changes to the bill, Byrd relented and allowed the bill to move quickly through the chamber.
"I am pleased that at least some public debate has been generated on this bill and that the right of senators to offer amendments was respected," Byrd said.
The Senate approved the bill 97-0 to send it back to the House for final approval. The legislation probably will pass the House quickly and head to the president's desk for his signature.
"Our bill provides real solutions to real problems and closes loopholes in our immigration system," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
The border security bill would increase the pay of border patrol agents and allow the Immigration and Naturalization Service to hire 200 new investigators and another 200 inspectors.
It also would require the INS to establish a foreign student tracking system that records the acceptance of aliens by educational institutions, issuance of student visas and enrollment of aliens at schools. Several of the hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 terror attacks were in the country on student visas.
The bill also would require that passports issued after 2003 be harder to tamper with and visitor documents be readable by machines using biometrics technology, such as face recognition.
Byrd, still not completely satisfied with the bill, said it's not enough just to pass the legislation telling security officials they have to make these changes.
"It is fine to authorize these funds, but this bill will require the appropriation of funds and the support of its proponents for those appropriations if its provisions are to be implemented," Byrd said.
Byrd has been angry since last year because Republicans and the White House rejected his request for extra money for domestic and border security after Congress approved $40 billion in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Republicans have promised to fight for the money specified in the bill.