A bipartisan immigration bill being debated in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings would enhance national security, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said as the tragedy sparked fresh concerns about terrorism in the U.S.
Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said 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 all will help make the U.S. safer.
“First, we’re going to make a dramatic investment in our border with Mexico,” Durbin said in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend. “We’re going to close the gaps in that border once and for all. That’s important.”
As for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., they will “have to come forward, register with the government, go through a criminal background check,” he said.
Durbin spoke as police searched for a 19-year-old immigrant suspected in the Boston bombings after a second suspect was killed in an overnight gunfight. Dzhokar Tsarnaev escaped during the confrontation early yesterday with police in the Boston suburb of Watertown, only to be captured there last night.
Tsarnaev 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 yesterday.
“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, countered Grassley in a joint statement, saying that, while 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.
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.
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.
Durbin also said the effort to enact gun-safety legislation will continue after the Senate this week rejected a proposal to require background checks of more firearm purchasers.
“I have never seen so many senators so down after the defeat of the most basic background-check information when it comes to firearms,” he said. “And to look up in the gallery and see those families for Newtown, families that we’d all come to know personally, as they filed out with their heads down, you thought to yourself, we let them down, we let America down. But it isn’t over.”
Parents whose children were killed in the Dec. 14 mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut; a political action committee formed by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, herself a shooting victim; and a mayors’ organization co-founded by New York City Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, are seeking to counter the influence of the National Rifle Association. The NRA is the nation’s biggest gun lobby, claiming about 4 million members.
Durbin said the NRA attacked him during his election campaigns.
“They almost beat me, because I really didn’t have anybody standing in my corner supporting my position,” he said. “That’s changing.”
He expressed concern that another mass shooting will occur while Congress doesn’t act on gun safety.
“Sadly, I’m afraid, there will be some other incident -- I pray it isn’t as terrible as what happened at Connecticut -- but some other incident is going to remind us of our vulnerability,” he said.