Senate Republicans are stepping up their call to strengthen U.S. border security standards in a proposed immigration law, as the plan’s authors urge lawmakers not to let the Boston Marathon bombings sap momentum.
Border security and the potential for terrorists to slip into the country were again central themes today when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“We will learn lessons from this attack, just as we have from past instances of terrorism and violent extremism,” Napolitano said. “We will apply those, we will emerge even stronger.”
At a seven-hour hearing yesterday, several Republican senators and immigration experts said the April 15 bombings, which killed three people, showed a need for stronger border control and stricter background checks for immigrants who could seek citizenship under the plan.
“We’re taking advantage of an opportunity -- when once in 25 years we deal with immigration -- to make sure every base is covered,” Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican, said at yesterday’s hearing.
Grassley is among a number of Republican lawmakers demanding changes to the immigration proposal after authorities identified two ethnic Chechens who legally immigrated to the U.S. as suspects in the Boston bombings. One of them, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, has been charged with using a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death, according to a federal court filing in Boston.
The criminal background checks that would be required before undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. could become citizens are “insufficient to prevent a terrorist from getting amnesty,” Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said at yesterday’s hearing. About 11 million undocumented immigrants are in the U.S.
The immigration measure would increase the “mathematical likelihood” that an attack similar to the one in Boston would occur “on a greater scale,” said Kobach, a Republican.
Napolitano testified in February that opening a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who pass background checks would boost national security. She canceled her planned appearance before the committee on April 19 as authorities searched for Tsarnaev, who was apprehended later that day. The second suspect, Tsarnaev’s brother Tamerlan, was killed in a shootout with police.
Republican and Democratic members of the Senate group that crafted the immigration proposal said the Boston bombings don’t provide a reason to delay action on the bill.
“Let no one be so cruel as to try to use the heinous acts of two young men last week to derail the dreams and futures of millions of hard-working people,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said yesterday.
Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York, who is in the bipartisan group that proposed the plan, said the attacks shouldn’t be used “as an excuse for not doing a bill or delaying it.”
The comment prompted an angry rebuke from Grassley, who interjected, “I never said that. I never said that.”
Schumer said his comments weren’t directed at Grassley or other Judiciary Committee Republicans. He said the immigration measure would strengthen security “in a way that would make a Boston less likely.”
One of the bill’s Republican co-sponsors, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, broke with other authors and said the Boston attack may be a reason to slow consideration of the proposal.
“If there are flaws in our immigration system that were exposed by the attack in Boston, any immigration reform passed by Congress this year should address those flaws,” Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said in a statement. “Congress needs time to conduct more hearings and investigate how our immigration and national security systems could be improved going forward.”
The Senate plan would allow 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 border plan 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 goal 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.
Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, questioned Napolitano today about whether the border security “metrics” included in the bill were “simply the subjective assessment of a host of factors” by the administration.
“If a trigger is certain to occur, then I would suggest that it is not a meaningful trigger,” Cruz said.
The border security provisions were designed to be a selling point for Republican lawmakers. Still, several said the measures didn’t do enough to warrant opening a citizenship path for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before the end of 2011.
Grassley said he was concerned that the plan delegates too much authority to the Homeland Security Department and that it “weakens current law by only requiring the southern border to be 90 percent” secure.
Another Republican on the panel, Texas Senator John Cornyn, said while there were “things to be commended” in the bill, its border security provisions were “well short of the sponsors’ aspiration to protect the borders and maintain U.S sovereignty.”
“Without major changes, the bill could do more harm than good,” Cornyn said.
Grassley said a requirement that businesses electronically verify that their employees can legally work in the U.S. would be deployed too slowly and shouldn’t make an exception for people who are intermittently employed.
Grassley said he was “concerned that the provisions will render the program ineffective as an enforcement tool.”
Some Republicans, including Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, have said the proposal is tantamount to “amnesty” for people in the U.S. unlawfully. The Senate plan would harm “workers whose wages have been pulled down” by an influx of low-skilled foreign workers, he said.
Grover Norquist, president of the Washington anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform, testified at yesterday’s hearing that giving undocumented workers more longevity would benefit the U.S. economy.
“Allowing undocumented workers to move from job to job, travel easily and safely, search out and interview for different jobs in different sectors and locations would greatly increase their productivity, and they would become greater contributors to their own well-being and the wealth of our nation,” Norquist said.
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican co-sponsor of the measure, said it would curb a system in place that amounts to amnesty.
“If you’re worried about amnesty, that’s exactly what we have,” Graham said today.
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said, “we should not proceed” on immigration legislation until lawmakers understand how the U.S. allowed the bombing suspects to immigrate from “an area known as a hotbed of Islamic extremism.”
In a written response today, Reid said he was open to working with Paul “throughout this process on ways we can improve this bill and enact commonsense immigration reform.”
The Judiciary Committee listed the immigration proposal on its April 25 agenda. Formal consideration probably won’t occur until the week of May 6 because committee rules allow new business to be delayed at the request of any member.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the Boston attack shouldn’t slow efforts to craft a new immigration law. He said the administration agreed with statements by Graham and McCain that the legislation “will enhance, when implemented, our national security.”
In the Republican-led House, where a bipartisan group is working on an immigration proposal, leaders yesterday echoed calls to move ahead with an immigration overhaul to make the U.S. more secure.
“If we fix our immigration system it may actually help us understand who all is here, why they’re here, and what legal status they have,” Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said on Fox News.
Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, said lawmakers shouldn’t make “knee-jerk” assessments about immigration legislation because of the Boston bombings.
“We do not know how to even track people who overstay their visas,” Ryan told reporters yesterday after a speech to the City Club of Chicago. “We need a modern immigration system that helps us not only protect our border, but protects national security in all of its aspects. So, if anything, I would say this is an argument for modernizing our immigration laws.”