Lord, Give Us Biometrics – But Not Yet

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on May 17, 2013

Yesterday's session of the Senate Judiciary Committee brought to mind the ambivalence of St. Augustine when he famously implored the Lord to make him chaste, but not yet.

The committee's prayer seems to be, "Oh Lord, give us a biometric identification system that would make immigration policy credible, but no hurry."

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Here's the good news from yesterday's session to mark up the Gang of Eight immigration reform bill: Some members of the committee said they want solid information on the likely cost of a biometric system to track whether persons who come to the United States on temporary visas exit the country before their visas expire.

Now the bad news: The Judiciary Committee and the Gang of Eight have failed to produce that information, and the minor momentum generated yesterday to produce it is likely to be overwhelmed by the major momentum to get a bill to the Senate floor in a few weeks.

Of course, the worst news of all is that although Congress passed legislation in 1996 mandating a biometric system, it still is nowhere in sight.

At yesterday's session, Sen. John Cornyn, (R-Texas) warned against the non-biometric system called for in the Gang of Eight's bill. He said that system, which would use a photographic identifier, "is no substitute for a biometric entry/exit system which, I think, is the only dependable way."

California Democrat Diane Feinstein echoed Cornyn's concern. Said Feinstein, "I do agree with Senator Cornyn that we ought to look more deeply into the biometric system. It's come to my attention that some states are using this on driver's licenses. I'd like to have an examination of exactly how costly it is. Perhaps we can work together — not stop this bill — but it seems to me if there is a better identification system, one that cannot be foiled, I think we should have it, and if it's cost effective I know we should have it."

But Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has emerged as the intellectual and tactical leader of the Gang of Eight, said a reliable and affordable biometric system was not available and wouldn't be for years.

"Every time it's been (tested), it's flopped," Schumer said. "So if we pushed a biometric system we'd probably have nothing for a decade."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who has become Schumer's major partner in pushing for the bill, made a lengthy statement that began with a lament of congressional failure to follow up on its 1996 legislation.

Said Graham, "The truth of the matter [is] Congress hasn't acted on that proposal. We've had Republican presidents, Republican congresses. We've had Democratic congresses and Democratic presidents, and we've never invested into making the exit system biometric."

Then, after bemoaning the fecklessness of the Congress in which he has served for the past 10 years, Graham urged acceptance of the less sophisticated system included in the current bill. He also urged rejection of Cornyn's attempt to make establishment of a biometric system a trigger for the bill's plan to legalize illegal immigrants. And he issued an endorsement for biometric identifiers sometime in the unidentified future

Said Graham, "I want biometrics as far as the eye can see and as many ways as possible post-9/11 to protect this nation, but to make it a trigger in light of how much it costs and how long it takes I just think goes too far."