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House GOP pulls border biometric testing bill

WASHINGTON – A bill that would require biometric testing for travelers leaving the United States found itself under attack from all directions Monday, as Rep. Chris Collins introduced a proposal to potentially weaken the requirement.

The move by the Clarence Republican came just as the House leadership delayed consideration of the bill amid a rebellion from conservatives who don’t think the measure is tough enough.

The dual moves left huge questions about the future of the proposed Secure Our Borders First Act and its requirement that biometric inspections – such as fingerprints or iris scans – be done on people leaving the country at land borders in five to seven years.

Peace Bridge General Manager Ron Rienas and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, have said that such a requirement would cause epic traffic jams at the U.S.-Canadian border. Collins said his concerns about potential traffic troubles prompted him to propose an amendment that might be able to prevent those inspections from ever being initiated.

Under Collins’ proposed amendment, the requirement for biometric tests would not move forward until after completion of a demonstration project aimed at testing whether the mandate would create traffic chaos. Collins’ measure would mean that the biometric requirement would move forward only if it “has not resulted in increased wait times at any border crossing that was participating in such pilot program.”

Calling himself a “doubting Thomas” on the proposal, Collins said: “What we want is just to make sure that anything we do, number one, works, and number two, doesn’t cause undue delays at our northern borders and for folks coming to Bills and Sabres games and going to the Galleria mall. We can’t have backups at the Peace Bridge or Rainbow Bridge or any of the others that would dissuade Canadians from coming into this country and also inconvenience Americans.”

Collins said he spoke with members of the leadership in the Republican-controlled House about his amendment, which he had intended to propose at a meeting of the Rules Committee – which decides which amendments merit a floor vote – late Monday.

But then the Republican leadership pulled the bill from the House floor, where it was scheduled for votes Wednesday.

Leaders blamed inclement weather for the move, but Collins thinks otherwise.

“I would say the issues surrounding the bill are what caused it to be pulled, not the weather,” Collins said, speculating that his amendment might have been one of the issues that prompted the delay.

At the same time, though, far-right conservatives were in a state of rebellion over the bill, saying it doesn’t stop President Obama’s recent executive order protecting millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation or otherwise do enough to crack down on illegal immigration.

In an unusual statement attacking GOP-authored legislation, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, faulted the measure for several reasons. He said the House measure doesn’t require captured undocumented immigrants to be immediately returned to their home country, does not include adequate protections against them getting jobs and does not require completion of a fence along the nation’s southern border.

“Surprisingly, it delays and weakens the long-standing unfulfilled statutory requirement for a biometric entry-exit visa tracking system,” Sessions said.

Congress called for such a system many years ago after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but it has never been funded or implemented. Now, though, some lawmakers from the South want the requirement to be put in place even faster than the five to seven years called for in the Secure Our Borders First Act, Collins said.

Despite the controversy over the bill, Higgins predicted that it will reach the House floor at some point. “They’ll whip this thing and get the votes,” he said. “It’ll be back in a couple of weeks.”

Last week, Higgins proposed his own amendment to the bill, which would have allowed the secretary of homeland security to delay implementation of the biometric inspection requirement until there was certainty that it would not cause problems at the border. The House Homeland Security Committee rejected Higgins’ proposal on a party-line vote.

Asked about Collins’ alternative, Higgins said he was concerned that the results from any biometric demonstration project might not tell the story of what would happen at every border crossing.

“This doesn’t take into account the fact that every single border crossing is different,” Higgins said.

A spokesman for Collins said, though, that the legislation calls for three demonstration project sites rather than just one, meaning that problems could well surface somewhere during the testing.

Higgins also noted that the biometric requirement appears to be redundant at the Canadian border, as the U.S. and Canadian governments have agreed to exchange exit and entry information about travelers as part of their “Beyond the Border” initiative to make border crossings easier.

“Why isn’t that being taken into account?” Higgins asked. “Is it ignorance? Is it arrogance?”

email: jzremski@buffnews.com