A day after the Boston Marathon bombings, the New York Post falsely reported that law enforcement suspected a Saudi national may have been responsible. Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa responded with predictable outrage. “If we can’t background-check people that are coming from Saudi Arabia, how do we think we are going to background-check the 11 million to 20 million people that are here from who knows where?” he told the National Review. King, a leading opponent of efforts to reform the nation’s immigration laws, was one of several conservatives—including Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions and talk show host Laura Ingraham—who are straining to draw a line from the Boston attack to the immigration bill.
As news emerged that the bombers were of Chechen ethnicity, GOP Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa expressed his own doubts. Grassley, a critic of expanding the number of visas the U.S. grants to high-skilled foreign workers—but who has otherwise signaled some openness to an immigration overhaul—said the Boston bombings highlighted the need “to understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system.”
Now the question is whether the Gang of Eight senators who authored the bill, and particularly the Republicans in the group, can wrest back the narrative from these doubters. On CNN’s State of the Union show Sunday, South Carolina Republican Lindsay Graham argued that the bombings strengthen the case for reform. It’s better to improve the immigration system than to keep it as is, he said, so authorities have a better idea of who is coming and who isn’t. Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Arizona Senator John McCain made similar statements this weekend.
With the wider public—including conservative Republicans—largely supporting the idea of immigration reform, it’s unlikely that the arguments of those who wish to tie the bombings to the bill will prevail. Those hoping for delay will have to show how the proposed immigration law weakens national security and how stronger immigration restrictions would have prevented the Boston bombings. Either would be a stretch. The Tsarnaev brothers were granted asylum as children; no one is calling for an end to the U.S.’s asylum program, and the immigration bill hardly touches on asylum rules. Moreover, adults who try to immigrate from Muslim countries and regions, including Chechnya, are already heavily scrutinized by U.S. officials.
Republican leaders in Congress aren’t looking for a way to derail the bill. Hearings on Capitol Hill went on as scheduled today. Despite King’s best efforts, if immigration reform encounters serious resistance in the days and weeks ahead, it won’t likely be because of what happened in Boston.