A new level of complexity emerged in the already tricky politics of immigration reform Friday, as reports about the immigration and citizenship status of the two Boston Marathon bombing suspects trickled out from unofficial sources.
Even as the Senate began hearings on a bipartisan proposal for immigration reform, and with a manhunt for the surviving immigrant brother suspected in the attack bringing Boston to a standstill, critics of the proposal suggested it would make the United States more vulnerable to those who would do it harm.
While security is certainly a legitimate topic for discussion, says Doris Meissner a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington and a former commissioner of the INS, it would be unfortunate if the Boston situation narrowed the immigration debate to security alone.
“A lot of people will use it to frustrate the immigration reform debate … which, prior to Boston, had finally broadened to be a much bigger discussion,” including labor market and workforce issues, she says.
Early in the day, an uncle of the suspects said they had come here with their parents as refugees from the Chechen conflict about 10 years ago.
CNN and Judicial Watch both reported on Friday afternoon, from unnamed sources, that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the suspect still at large, was sworn in as a United States citizen on Sept. 11, 2012, and that his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was a legal permanent resident.
Speculation mounted that the young men possibly could have become radicalized Muslims.
Immigration officials would not comment to the Monitor on the immigration or citizenship status of the suspects because of the ongoing investigation.
But even before some of these details were reported, the sense that the suspects weren’t from the US originally cropped up Friday morning in discussions of immigration reform – everywhere from Twitter to Capitol Hill.
"Given the events of this week, it's important for us to understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system," said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa Friday morning as the Senate Judiciary Committee convened the first hearing on bipartisan legislation to remake the US immigration system.
"How can we beef up security checks on people who wish to enter the United States?” he said in his opening statement. “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?"
“If immigration reform is to become law, then Congress and President Obama must first address the fact that not everyone who comes to America likes us. Indeed, some immigrants want to kill us.
“As the horror of the past week reminds us, America is not immune from terror on its own soil. After 9/11, the country took serious measures to curb the importation of terror and to scrutinize more carefully who is granted a visa to play, work, and study. But it needs to do more.”
But even some critics of the immigration reform bill object to those who would tie it, at this point, to the Boston situation. “Hijacking tragedy to drive public policy debate is just wrong,” says James Jay Carafano, a foreign and defense policy expert at the Heritage Foundation, who says he has a long list of issues with the bill.
After 9/11, he says, a lot of the security measures were knee-jerk reactions that didn’t really help. And while more information may emerge that creates legitimate debate about security or immigration, he says, not enough is known yet, and terrorists are such a tiny percentage of any group that “anybody that wants to revamp any policy … based on the specific acts of a handful of individuals, that’s just stupid.”
If it’s true that the family came here as refugees at least 10 years ago, Ms. Meissner says, people should be questioning what has happened in the suspects’ lives since then, seeing the situation as more parallel with home-grown terrorism rather than an immigration issue.
The security measures associated with immigration have increased dramatically since 9/11, Meissner says. Concerns about the possibility that one or both of the suspects became radicalized through Chechen connections would be a matter for investigation by intelligence agencies, she says, rather than something that could have been predicted when they arrived as children.
A spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, a member of the so-called Gang of Eight negotiating immigration reform, said in an e-mail to the Monitor Friday: "There are legitimate policy questions to ask and answer about what role our immigration system played, if any, in what happened.
“Regardless of the circumstances in Boston, immigration reform that strengthens our borders and gives us a better accounting of who is in our country and why will improve our national security.
“Americans will reject any attempt to tie the terrorists responsible for the attacks in Boston with the millions of decent, law-abiding immigrants currently living in the US and those hoping to immigrate here in the future."
Associated Press material was used in this report.