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GOP border bill stirs fears of bridge backups

WASHINGTON – House Republicans are pushing a border security bill that would require U.S. officials to do a biometric inspection of everyone leaving the country, a change that some fear would create epic backups like no one has ever seen at the Peace Bridge and other northern border crossings.

“That would absolutely shut down the border,” said Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge, after being told of the House legislation.

The bill would, most likely within five to seven years, require everyone entering Canada from Buffalo to go through two inspections rather than just the one inspection that Canadian officials do in Fort Erie.

The new inspection would take place in Buffalo, and Rienas said the Buffalo Peace Bridge plaza simply doesn’t have room to accommodate all the extra inspection lanes that would be required to do the biometric testing. That would mean people would simply have to wait, said Rienas, predicting “back-ups all the way to the I-90.”

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, predicted that people would simply stop crossing the border because of the biometric testing provision, which would require the government to take fingerprints from or do iris scans of everyone in every vehicle leaving the country.

“This job-killing bill would effectively close the northern border and cripple key components of the U.S. economy, including manufacturing,” Higgins predicted.

The biometric testing requirement is included in the Secure Our Borders First Act, a get-tough bill that the House Homeland Security Committee passed earlier this week, and which is set to go to the full House for a vote next week.

Republicans on the committee rejected an amendment Higgins offered that would have allowed the Homeland Security secretary to delay implementation of the biometric inspection requirement until he or she was certain that it wouldn’t cause problems at the border.

“I think the language in the bill would not impede the flow of trade,” said Rep. Candice Miller, a Republican who represents a northern border district in Michigan.

Miller and other Republicans on the committee defended the measure, saying biometric tests at the border would go a long way toward securing it by giving the federal government a way of checking which foreign visitors had overstayed their visas.

Currently, foreigners who travel to the U.S. from many countries must have a visa, but there is no system in place to discover when they have overstayed those visas. The biometric inspection system would create that system by giving the government a way of cross-referencing biometric exit data against the list of visas the government issued.

Some 49 percent of the undocumented immigrants in America simply overstayed their visas, rather than entering the country illegally, said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C.

“This would give us a way to eliminate almost half the illegals that are in this country by knowing when they left and when they did not,” said Duncan, who noted that four of the hijackers who perpetrated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had overstayed their visas.

The requirement is included in a comprehensive border security bill that includes additional fencing at the southern border and a host of other measures that are so strict that the Department of Homeland Security questions whether they can be implemented.

“The bill sets mandatory and highly prescriptive standards that the Border Patrol itself regards as impossible to achieve, undermines the Department of Homeland Security’s capacity to adapt to emerging threats, and politicizes tactical decisions,” said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

Nevertheless, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, defended both the full bill and the provision requiring biometric testing at the border.

“Our border must be dealt with through regular order and in a step-by-step approach – not through any type of comprehensive immigration reform,” said McCaul, R-Texas. “We must stop the bleeding at the border.”

Arguing against Higgins’ amendment, McCaul noted that the bill already includes language calling on the Department of Homeland Security to implement the biometric inspections so that it “causes the least possible disruption” to trade and travel.

In addition, while calling for quicker implementation of biometric testing at pedestrian, air and sea points of entry, the bill doesn’t require biometric inspections at busy vehicular border crossings like the Peace Bridge for five years.

In addition, it allows the Department of Homeland Security to extend that deadline another two years if the infrastructure isn’t ready to handle the change.

Still, the provision appears to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the “Beyond the Border” agreement between the U.S. and Canada, which aims to make crossing the border easier, not harder.

What’s more, the Beyond the Border agreement appears to offer the U.S. a way of knowing who is leaving the country without installing a new biometric inspection system.

“The Beyond the Border Action Plan committed Canada and the U.S. governments to put in place entry-exit information systems at the common land border to exchange biographical information on the entry of travellers, including citizens, permanent residents and third-country nationals,” said Christine Constantin, spokesperson for the Canadian embassy in Washington.

“The system would allow a record of entry into one country as a record of an exit from the other.”

Currently the system exists for exchanging data on third-country nationals, permanent residents of Canada and lawful residents in the United States at all automated points of entry, Constantin said. Plans are for the system to be extended to all travelers this year.

Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, said that while he thinks the nation needs tough legislation to crack down on illegal immigration, at the southern border, he has concerns about the biometric inspection requirement.

“If implemented wrong, this could potentially create problems for the Western New York economy,” Collins said. “So, I will be working with my colleagues to protect Western New York from any negative economic impact.”