The immigration status of the Boston bombings suspects may become a stumbling block for a new bill that seeks to legalize nearly 11 million immigrants and increase the number of legal immigrants to the United States.
Opponents of the bill—which was crafted by a bipartisan "Gang of Eight" in the Senate—and even some supporters, say the process of reforming the country's immigration system should be stalled until all the facts about the suspects' interactions with the immigration system are known.
Both Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the two brothers accused of the Boston Marathon bombings, emigrated to the United States legally from Russia as refugees a decade ago when they were children. The Tsarnaev family, which is ethnically Chechen, was granted asylum because it feared persecution in its home country, according to media reports.
Tamerlan's application for citizenship was put on hold in 2012 by the government, because he had been questioned by the FBI at the request of the Russian government for possible ties to Chechen terrorism, the New York Times reported. Dzhokhar's citizenship application was approved, and he naturalized in 2012.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing over the bill on Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano defended immigration officials' handling of the Tsarnaevs, saying the process for granting asylum is rigorous.
"In the past four years we have increased both the number and the coverage of the vetting that goes on," Napolitano said. As things currently stand, she noted, those who seek asylum must go through multiple screening interviews and submit biometric data to be checked across government databases. If granted asylum and legal status, immigrants must go through two more interviews if they want to become citizens when they become eligible five years later.
(Asylum applicants must show that they face government-sanctioned persecution in their home country stemming from their race, religion, nationality, political views or membership in a particular social group.)
Napolitano argued that the immigration reform bill would make the country safer because the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country would be brought "out of the shadows" and screened. The bill requires immigrants to pass a background check before they are eligible for temporary legal status. They must pay fines and back taxes and enroll in English classes to gain permanent legal status.
Opponents of the immigration bill have argued that the Tsarnaevs' alleged crime suggests that the current immigration system is unable to weed out potential terrorists, and that the process of crafting the bill should be slowed down to address that. If the bill is stalled until next fall, opponents hope it will be close enough to the next election that on-the-fence lawmakers will withdraw their support, effectively killing the bill. President Barack Obama has said he hopes the bill will pass this summer.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, one of the most prominent opponents of legalizing immigrants, said at Monday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that the legalization process in the bill could present a national security threat.
"The background checks in this bill are insufficient from preventing a terrorist from getting amnesty," Kobach said.
Supporters of the immigration reform bill say the argument is a specious excuse to delay the legislation.
"Unless we are able to design an immigration background check that can get into the minds of people and predict the future, then we won't be able to solve problems like this through immigration screening alone," said Lynn Tramonte of America's Voice, a pro-immigration advocacy group.
It's also unclear how the immigration system could have known what two children seeking asylum with their family would do 10 years later.
But even some lawmakers who have indicated their support for the bill have raised concern about the Boston suspects.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has been a vocal supporter of immigration reform, wrote in a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid that the immigration reform process should stop until all the facts are known about the intersection between the immigration system and the Tsarnaev brothers.
"Why did the current system allow two individuals to immigrate to the United States from the Chechen Republic in Russia, an area known as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, who then committed acts of terrorism? Were there any safeguards? Could this have been prevented? Does the immigration reform before us address this?" Paul asked.
He said Congress should debate whether immigrants from "high-risk" nations should face more "scrutiny" and whether student visas for people from certain "high-risk" countries altogether should be discontinued.
Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said on ABC on Sunday that he hopes lawmakers will put the immigration debate "on hold" because of the bombing.
Roy Beck of NumbersUSA, a group that opposes illegal immigration and wants to dramatically lower rates of legal immigration, said he thinks it's significant that Paul and Coats have called for slowing down the bill.
"The Boston bombing gives them a little more of a public reason to try to get this to slow down," Beck said.
If the bill is delayed until the fall, Republicans and red-state Democrats might think it is too close to election season to support it, Beck predicts.