Efforts to rewrite U.S. immigration law shouldn’t be derailed by the Boston Marathon bombings in which two immigrants are suspected, several senators said today.
People shouldn’t “jump to conclusions” and “conflate” the events in Boston with the immigration proposal, Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said at a hearing on the plan today in Washington.
Second-ranking Senate Democrat Dick Durbin said today the bipartisan immigration bill introduced this week would enhance national security.
The proposals to offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, tighten border security, require employers to verify the identity of their workers, and track visitors’ visas are important to increasing security in the U.S., Durbin of Illinois said on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital With Al Hunt,” airing this weekend.
“First, we’re going to make a dramatic investment in our border with Mexico,” Durbin said. “Secondly, everyone, the 11 million people who were basically living in the shadows in America, have to come forward, register with the government, go through a criminal background check. That will make us safer.”
The lawmakers spoke as police were searching for a 19-year-old immigrant from Kyrgyzstan suspected in the Boston bombings after a second suspect -- his brother, also an immigrant -- was killed in an overnight battle.
Dzhokar Tsarnaev escaped during a confrontation with police in the Boston suburb of Watertown, said a federal law enforcement official. He immigrated to the U.S. in 2003, according to an uncle in Maryland. A government official who sought anonymity said Tsarnaev became a naturalized American citizen on Sept. 11, 2012.
“How can individuals evade authority and plan such attacks on our soil?” Senator Chuck Grassley said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the immigration bill.
“How can we beef up security checks on people who wish to enter the United States? How do we ensure that people who wish to do us harm are not eligible for benefits under the immigration laws, including this new bill before us?” said Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the panel.
Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, co-sponsors of the immigration bill, said in a joint statement that some have suggested the situation in Boston was a reason to delay the legislation.
“The opposite is true: Immigration reform will strengthen our nation’s security by helping us identify exactly who has entered our country and who has left,” McCain and Graham said.
Schumer said that asylum and refugee programs in the U.S. have been strengthened over the past few years. If homeland security officials determine more changes are needed to boost security, he said he’s “committed” to making them.
Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said Americans are concerned about the immigration system even in a week when this “horrible, terrible tragic news” has taken the public’s attention.
Grassley said, “Given the events of this week, it is important for us to understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system.”
“While we don’t yet know the immigration status of people who have terrorized the communities of Massachusetts,” when officials find out it will help “shed light on the weaknesses of our system,” including the need to bolster security checks, Grassley said.
An earlier effort to rewrite immigration law under President George W. Bush was delayed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and ultimately failed in 2007.
Durbin said the quick law enforcement response to the Boston bombings shows the improvements made since 2001.
“We learned a bitter lesson that day when we lost 3,000-plus innocent Americans, and we started making dramatic investments in intelligence-gathering, as well as law enforcement, hoping to protect America from anything like that ever happening again, knowing how tough a challenge that would be in such an open society,” Durbin said.
The product of months of negotiations between four Republican and four Democratic senators, the new proposal attempts to strike a balance: provide a path to citizenship that Democrats insist must be part of any broad rewrite and tie it to enough border security enhancements to satisfy Republicans.
Leahy said he is concerned about the “triggers” in the immigration bill because it could “long delay green cards for those who we want to make full and contributing participants in our society.”
Leahy said, in his opening statement, that he doesn’t want “for people to move out of the shadows only to be stuck in some underclass.”
The Senate plan allows undocumented immigrants who pay at least $2,000 in fines and meet other criteria to apply for citizenship after more than a decade in the U.S., though only if specific border security benchmarks are reached.
The plan for securing the border must, within five years, result in an apprehension rate of at least 90 percent in “high-risk” sectors where more than 30,000 people are caught a year. If that rate isn’t met, the proposal would establish a commission of border-state officials and border-security experts to recommend ways to achieve the 90 percent goal.
The proposal also would authorize $1.5 billion to build additional fencing and make other infrastructure improvements along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Durbin said he wants to get a bill through the Senate by the middle of the year with the support of President Barack Obama.
“With the president really pushing us, saying, ‘Let’s do it once and for all,’ that helps,” Durbin said.