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Opinion

Reminder from Boston Marathon bombings: A need to integrate immigrant children

The Boston Marathon bombings could not have been foreseen in the case files of  8-year-old asylum seeker, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and his 15-year-old brother, Tamerlan. What should be questioned is whether US authorities do enough to integrate immigrant children once they arrive.

By Kathleen Newland / April 29, 2013

Photos show Boston Marathon bombing suspects Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, left, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. Op-ed contributor Kathleen Newland writes: 'One way to guard against failures [in the US immigration system] is to pay more attention to the integration of children who come to the US, especially those who may be troubled by the legacies of war-torn areas, and to be alert to signs of disaffection.'

The Lowell Sun & Robin Young/AP/File

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As soon as Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings, were identified as Chechen immigrants, and then as refugees, questions were raised about where the system had gone wrong to admit them to the United States. But careful examination of the known facts reveals no flaws in the asylum system; it worked as it should have.

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The tragedy in Boston could not have been foreseen in the case files of an 8-year-old asylum seeker and his 15-year-old brother. What can – and has – been questioned is whether authorities at all levels in the US do enough to integrate immigrant children into mainstream American life. (The same question could, of course, be asked about other disadvantaged children in the country’s underclass or those who suffer from undiagnosed or inadequately treated mental illness.)

To immigrants in general, the US offers a bootstraps approach: a generous admissions policy compared to most other developed countries and very little help for those who take up the offer. A condition for legal immigration is that the immigrant is not likely to become a “public charge.”

An exception is made for refugees and asylum seekers, in recognition of the fact that they were compelled to leave their home countries for fear of persecution. But even for them, assistance is very limited – about seven months of cash assistance and help in connecting to a job, housing, and most of the public benefits available to US citizens.

The Tsarnaevs’ family origins in Chechnya gave them a solid claim to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted,” in the language of US and international refugee law. When the Tsarnaev family briefly moved to Chechnya from Kyrgyzstan after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, things may have looked promising for the region.

But life in Chechnya became a nightmare after Russia invaded in 1994 to end Chechnya’s bid for independence. The subsequent turmoil tossed the family back to Kyrgyzstan, then to Dagestan, Mrs. Tsarnaev’s family homeland, and on to the US in 2002. Tamerlan would follow his parents and younger brother Dzhokhar to the US a year later.

Chechens as a group were always subject to discrimination throughout the Soviet Union, and from 1999 on, they were also tainted with the terrorist attacks that Chechen militants visited on Moscow and other Russian cities. Chechens, even those like the Tsarnaevs who had nothing to do with the insurgency, were subject not only to discrimination but attack, including by the police. By 2003, Chechens were by far the largest group of asylum seekers in Europe.

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Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

The athlete-adventurer co-founded a relay run called One Run for Boston that started in Los Angeles and ended at the marathon finish line to raise funds for victims.

 
 
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