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Border security bill nears Senate vote

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote on a bill before the end of the week that would give technology a major role in securing the nation's borders and points of entry.

The U.S. Senate could approve a bill as early as Thursday that calls for a high-tech push to tighten the country's borders.

A version of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act passed the House of Representatives last year, and the Senate is expected to vote on the bill before the end of the week.

Among other things, the Immigration and Naturalization Service would be given an additional $150 million to "improve technology, expand the use of technology that improves border security, and to facilitate the flow of commerce at ports of entry by improving and expanding programs for pre-enrollment and preclearance."

At a hearing earlier this week, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., one of the bill's sponsors, pointed to the incident in which the INS sent notices of visa approvals to two of the Sept. 11 terrorists as proof of the need to update the immigration system.

"We must enhance intelligence and technology capabilities, strengthen training programs for border officials and foreign service officers, and improve the monitoring of foreign nationals already in the United States," he said.

The INS has been working on a program since 1996 to update the technology behind the system that tracks people coming in and out of the country. The first phase of that plan calls for an electronic database that contains all the data on incoming and outgoing passengers who aren't required to have visas.

The schedule calls for the system to be in place for all airports and seaports by 2003; in the top 50 land borders by 2004; and for the entire country by 2005.

There is already a paper process in place to collect data for people entering the country by air or by sea. The INS will begin collecting exit data starting Oct. 1, officials said.

The new bill would bump up the technological requirements placed on the agencies that monitor the country's borders. It calls for, among other things:

• A database by law enforcement agencies that could be made available to foreign service officers issuing visas, federal agents determining admissibility, and officers investigating and identifying aliens.

• A data system that can search databases for names and be able to recognize multiple versions of names. For instance, the search system would have to be able to "recognize that 'Muhamad Usman Abdel Raqeeb' and 'Haj Mohd Othman Abdul Rajeeb' are transliterations of the same name," the bill states.

• The issuance of machine-readable, tamper-resistant travel documents with biometric identifiers by Oct. 26, 2003. Equipment and software capable of reading the new documents would also have to be installed at all U.S. ports of entry.

The bill also addresses a host of non-technological issues involved in border security, including adding 1,000 new INS workers, lifting a 45-minute time limit on INS inspection of passengers on international flights, and denying visas to citizens of countries on the United States' terrorist watch list.