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Panel OK’s fingerprint mandate for foreigners

Targets those leaving US via major airports

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (left) and Senators Richard Durbin and Dianne Feinstein discussed negotiations during a meeting on immigration.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (left) and Senators Richard Durbin and Dianne Feinstein discussed negotiations during a meeting on immigration.

WASHINGTON — Senate supporters of far-reaching immigration legislation accepted minor changes in public while negotiating over more sweeping alterations in private Monday as they drove toward expected Judiciary Committee approval by mid-week.

In a long day of drafting, the panel voted to begin phasing in a requirement for foreigners to undergo fingerprinting when they leave the country. Lawmakers also agreed to make an immigrant’s third drunken driving conviction a deportable offense in some cases.

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At the same time, officials expressed optimism that agreement was in sight in complex private talks over proposed changes to a section of the legislation relating to H-1B high skilled visas. As drafted, the bill would raise the current cap from 65,000 annually to 110,000, with the possibility of a further rise to 180,000.

Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, whose state is home to a burgeoning high tech industry, sought changes to reduce the cost and other conditions on firms that rely on highly skilled foreign labor.

He told reporters he is prepared to support the overall legislation when the committee votes on final passage if an agreement is reached on the issues. ‘‘The way it was written they’re going to move offshore,’’ he said of firms seeking changes.

In general, organized labor and its allies on the committee, including Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, wanted tougher conditions than industry was seeking, part of an attempt to assure that American workers are not disadvantaged by a larger influx of H-1B visa holders.

At its core, the legislation would provide an opportunity of US citizenship to millions of immigrants living in the country illegally, create a new visa program for low-skilled workers, and permit a sizable increase in the number of high-tech visas. At the same time it mandates new measures to crack down on future unlawful immigration.

The full Senate is expected to begin debate on the legislation next month.

In two previous weeks of deliberations, supporters of the legislation have demonstrated their command over the committee’s proceedings, alternately accepting some proposals advanced by the bill’s critics and rejecting others — all without losing a single showdown.

The same pattern held true as the committee embarked on its third and final week of drafting.

On a vote of 13-5, the legislation’s supporters agreed to require foreigners leaving the country through any of the nation’s 30 busiest airports to submit to fingerprinting, part of an attempt to strengthen security.

‘‘This is an agreement that we need to build toward a biometric visa exit system,’’ said Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona. He said such a system is ‘‘long overdue.’’ Most of the committee’s Democrats supported the provision, along with four Republicans. Among them were GOP Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Flake, two of the so-called Gang of Eight that negotiated the bill’s basic framework over many months.

The committee last week rejected a proposal by Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, to impose the fingerprinting requirement at all of the nation’s ports of entry rather than only the biggest airports. He said the system’s partial implementation marked a ‘‘retreat from current law,’’ which already requires a nationwide biometric system. The requirement has not been fulfilled because of the cost.

It appeared unlikely the issue of the high tech visas would be settled formally until Tuesday.

High-tech companies sought a change in the bill’s requirement that they show they have tried to recruit US workers before hiring anyone on an H-1B visa.

Hatch’s original proposal would have made the regulation apply only to the firms most heavily dependent on H-1B visas, not on those where 85 percent of the jobs are filled by American citizens.

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