A political landscape that seemed tailor-made for a bipartisan rewrite of immigration laws just a week ago has been reshaped by the Boston Marathon bombing.
Fresh questions about U.S. immigration and security safeguards have left the bill’s prospects unclear. The effort faces tests beginning today, when a Senate hearing is scheduled to scrutinize legislation unveiled last week that would give 11 million undocumented immigrants a means to obtain citizenship, tighten border security, and create new programs and priorities for admitting future immigrants to live and work in the U.S.
With the nation’s attention now focused on the bombing suspects, legal immigrants who were ethnic Chechens, lawmakers’ willingness to embrace legislation already regarded by skeptics as forgiveness for those who have flouted U.S. immigration laws may have faded.
“Just push it back a month or two,” Senator Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, said yesterday on ABC’s “This Week” program. “Let the emotions settle down. Congress has this way of just rushing to judgments without thinking it through carefully.”
Coats recommended a delay of “months here, or a few weeks -- not years,” yet even a brief pause might sap momentum for the legislation. Critics of changing U.S. immigration policies, including granting legal status to undocumented immigrants, have long cited concerns about potential criminal or terrorist threats as supporting arguments.
The surviving Boston bombing suspect, 19-year-old Dzhokar Tsarnaev, immigrated to the U.S. in 2003, according to an uncle in Maryland. He became a naturalized American citizen on Sept. 11, 2012, according to law enforcement officials. His 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, killed during an April 19 confrontation with police in Massachusetts, was a legal resident.
The Tsarnaev brothers and their two sisters came to the U.S. from the Russian region of Dagestan, after having been refugees from the central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan. They followed their parents, who had been granted political asylum in the U.S., said a State Department official who asked not to be identified to discuss the case.
Proponents of the immigration measure in both parties argue the bombing doesn’t undermine the case for the bill, saying it underscores the need to revamp U.S. immigration laws.
“This is no excuse to stop immigration reform,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “Now is the time to bring all of the 11 million out of the shadows and find out who they are. Most of them are here to work, but we may find some terrorists in our midst.”
Bipartisan momentum for immigration changes had been coalescing in the wake of the 2012 presidential elections, when Republican nominee Mitt Romney drew just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote -- a 16-year low for his party -- after a campaign in which he argued “illegals” should “self-deport.” President Barack Obama drew 71 percent after pledging to enact a sweeping immigration-law rewrite, something he promised yet never delivered during his first term.
Still, at an April 19 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to discuss the bipartisan measure, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa said the Boston attacks should prompt a stricter examination of the approach.
“How can individuals evade authority and plan such attacks on our soil?” Grassley, the panel’s top Republican said. “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?”
Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Graham, co-sponsors of the immigration bill, rebuked Grassley, saying in a joint statement that, while some have suggested the Boston bombing was a reason to delay the legislation, “the opposite is true.” The bill would strengthen national security, they said.
Such disagreements May resurface today when the Judiciary panel holds its second hearing on the bill, and in the coming days, when the committee plans to reschedule testimony on it by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who scrapped a planned April 19 appearance in the thick of the manhunt for the Tsarnaevs. Today’s session is scheduled to include testimony by more than 20 witnesses, including some who are vocal critics of the measure.
One of them, Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center For Immigration Studies, has indicated he believes the immigration status of the Boston bombing suspects shows that the government would do a shoddy job of checking the backgrounds of undocumented immigrants who would become eligible for legal status under the legislation.
“Aliens under Schumer/Rubio amnesty will have the same background check as the Tsarnaevs, only it’ll be 11 million times better!” he wrote April 19 on the micro-messaging social network Twitter, referring to two of the bill’s architects, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York.
The older Tsarnaev brother had been brought to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation two years ago by a foreign government concerned he held extremist Islamist beliefs, the agency said in a statement. A law enforcement official identified the foreign government as Russia. The FBI said it found no evidence of terrorist activity at the time.
Citizenship On Hold
“He applied for citizenship and the Department of Homeland Security put that on hold based upon his FBI interview,” U.S. Representative Michael McCaul, the Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said yesterday.
Tamerlan was a legal resident of the U.S. from Russia’s mainly Muslim North Caucasus region, who flew to Russia in January 2012 for about six months, McCaul said.
“Why weren’t customs flags put on this individual when he traveled abroad?” McCaul said yesterday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” adding that his committee will hold hearings on the Boston bombing. “What was he doing over there for six months? He was on the radar, then he got off the radar.”
Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Tamerlan Tsarnaev “may have actually traveled on an alias to get back to his home country,” where “he may have received training” for the Boston bombing.
Yet Rogers defended the actions of the FBI, saying that Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s trip to Russia came after U.S. authorities investigated him.
“That case was closed prior to his travel,” Rogers said. “I don’t think they missed anything.”
McCaul has sent a letter to the heads of the Department Homeland Security, FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence requesting all government information pertaining to Tamerlan Tsarnaev by April 26.
“I want to know how the FBI or the system dropped the ball when he was identified as a potential terrorist,” Graham said on CNN.
“The fact that we could not track him has to be fixed,” Graham said. “It’s people like this that you don’t want to let out of your sight and this was a mistake. I don’t know if our laws are insufficient or the FBI failed, but we’re at war with radical Islamists and we need to up our game.”
Senate Democrats also are demanding answers.
“This man was pointed out by a foreign government to be dangerous,” Schumer said on the same program. “He was interviewed by the FBI once. What did they find out? What did they miss? Then he went to Russia and to Chechnya. Why wasn’t he interviewed when he came back?”
Whatever their position on the immigration measure, lawmakers suggested its security provisions may need to be tightened in the wake of the Boston attacks.
Representative Peter King of New York, who cosigned McCaul’s letter requesting information on Tamerlan Tsarnaev, said that, while the Boston bombing shouldn’t derail the immigration debate, Congress should discuss whether the current system “should be refined.”
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” King said “that if people are coming from a country which has terrorist background, if there’s a strong terrorist element in that country” then “there should be extra vetting for people from that country.”
Second-ranking Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois said yesterday that abandoning the bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill would weaken U.S. security.
“The worst thing we can do is nothing,” Durbin said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “If we do nothing, leaving 11 million people in the shadows, not making our borders safer, not having the information that comes from employment and these visa holders, we will be less safe in America.”