How Immigration Opponents Are Trying to Use the Boston Bombings to Delay Reform

Rebecca Kaplan
National Journal

The specter of the Boston Marathon bombings – and the fact that they were allegedly carried out by two immigrants to the United States – continues to hang over the immigration reform efforts underway in the Senate.

A seven-hour hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday showed that those opposed to the Gang of Eight’s legislation seem willing to point to national security concerns as a reason to delay or significantly alter the immigration bill.

“The background checks in this bill are insufficient to prevent a terrorist from getting the amnesty,” argued Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State who helped author Arizona’s famously strict immigration law. “The Tamerlan Tsarnaev example demonstrates how important an alien's ability to have freedom of movement and to travel abroad for terrorist connections and terrorist training is and how dangerous it can be for Americans,” he said, referring to one of the men suspected in the Boston bombings.

Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies who advocates for lower immigration levels, raised questions about why the Tsarnaev brothers were given visas to come to the U.S. in the first place.

“The Boston bombing is not an excuse for delay of considering this immigration bill, but it is an illustration of certain problems that exist with our immigration system,” he said. “What does it say about the automated background checks that this bill would subject 11 million illegal immigrants to, that in-person interviews by FBI agent of Tamerlan Tsarnaev resulted in no action, even though it was actually based on concerns about terrorism?”

But the Republican lawmakers who have expressed opposition to aspects of the Gang of Eight’s bill declined to follow up on the Boston-related sections of Kobach’s and Krikorian’s testimony. Instead, Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, John Cornyn, R-Texas, Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, focused on other issues, ranging from border security to the legalization provisions.

Grassley in particular was so averse to being accused of saying the bombings should delay reform that he got in a shouting match with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., early in the hearing.

“I never said that,” Grassley shouted, with no small measure of indignation, when Schumer referenced his colleagues, “who are pointing to what happened, the terrible tragedy in Boston” as an “excuse for not doing a bill or delaying it.”

Schumer then said he wasn’t referring to Grassley, who at the start of Friday’s hearing on the bill said a close look at the immigration system was very important, "particularly in light of all that's happening in Massachusetts right now and over the last week."

Democrats and members of the Gang of Eight have been going on the offensive against anyone suggesting that the bill’s passage should be slowed because of the bombings. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., opened the hearing by saying he was “troubled a great deal” by opponents of the bill who “began to exploit the Boston Marathon bombing.”

“Let no one be so cruel as to try to use the heinous acts of these two young men last week to derail the dreams and futures of millions of hardworking people,” he said. “The bill before us would serve to strengthen our national security by allowing us to focus our border security and enforcement efforts against those who do us harm.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Gang of Eight, said, If Boston tells us anything, we need to be aware of who's living among us, whether they're native-born or come in on a visa and become a citizen.”

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Monday on Fox News: “I’m in the camp of, if we fix our immigration system, it may actually help us understand who all’s here, why they’re here, and what legal status they have.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been Republicans who argued for a delay after the bombings. They just don’t sit on the Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has outlined his own vision for comprehensive reform, penned a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Monday, asking that national security concerns be a part of the debate going forward.

“We should not proceed until we understand the specific failures of our immigration system,” he wrote. “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?”

He called for hearings in the Senate Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee to study the national security aspect of the debate.

Two key House Republicans also backed up the Gang of Eight members on Monday by saying that immigration reform could improve national security.