How The Boston Marathon Bombing Is Scrambling The Immigration Reform Debate

April 22, 2013 2:45 p.m.

Like it or not, the Boston marathon bombing and its two foreign-born suspects have become an unavoidable topic in the immigration debate, prompting strong reactions from reform opponents, supporters, and everyone in between.

Nowhere was the tension greater than in the Senate’s second hearing on the “Gang of 8” immigration bill Wednesday, where lawmakers clashed over whether it was fair to draw lessons from the Boston attack in crafting reform and, if so, what policy response was needed.

Let’s start with the critics. On the more extreme end, some of the most prominent anti-reform commentators and politicians had drawn connections between Boston and immigration since before the suspects were identified last week, arguing that even potential foreign ties should be enough to ice immigration reform indefinitely.

This trend continued at Monday’s hearing as witnesses opposed to the immigration bill repeatedly raised the Boston issue. Mark Krikorian, director of the hardline Center for Immigration Studies, told lawmakers that Boston was “an illustration of certain problems that exist with our immigratoin system” and cited the FBI’s inability to identify suspected bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev as a threat in 2011 as proof that background checks of undocumented immigrants wouldn’t work. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the architect of Arizona’s SB 1070 law and Mitt Romney’s “self deportation” plan, warned that terrorists would somehow exploit the immigration bill to obtain new forged identities.

“The background checks in this bill are insufficient to prevent a terrorist from getting the amnesty,” he said.

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But some less aggressive immigration skeptics raised the issue as well. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, through which the reform bill must go, brought up Boston in hearings on Friday and again Monday.

“I do not hear any criticism of people when there are 14 people killed in West, Texas, and demanding to take advantage of that tragedy to warn about more government action to make sure that fertilizer factories are safe,” Grassley said in defending that line of inquiry. “I think we are taking advantage of an opportunity when once in 25 years we deal with immigration to make sure that every base is covered.”

On the other side, pro-reform lawmakers were uncomfortable with almost any reference to the attacks, even as they’ve tried to spin the issue in their favor. The dominant message from them is that talk of Boston, especially without the full facts available, should be off limits for discussion. But if it is discussed, it should be in the context of how strong the bill’s border security and internal enforcement mechanisms are and how it would require background checks on millions of currently undocumented immigrants.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the chair of the Judiciary Committee, opened his remarks by praising the contributions of refugees and asylum seekers, the type of immigrant class through which the suspects Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev gained their visas, and condemned unnamed opponents of reform who were trying “to exploit the Boston marathon bombing.” But he added that by “allowing us to focus our security and enforcement efforts against those who would do us harm,” the bill would be a boon for those concerned about terrorism.

At the same hearing, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) set off a confrontation with Grassley after going on an extended diatribe against “those who point to the terrible tragedy in Boston as, I would say, an excuse for not doing a bill or delaying it many months.” The Iowa senator interrupted with shouts of “I never said that!” before Schumer clarified that he was only referring to voices outside the Senate.

Somewhere in the middle is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) who, as per his usual strategy, is trying to find a way to both acknowledge conservative concerns about the bombing without giving them the power to derail the bill he co-authored. At first his office reacted by condemning efforts to “make political points” before the investigation is complete. But since then, Rubio has sounded more conciliatory.

“I disagree with those who say that the terrorist attack in Boston has no bearing on the immigration debate,” Rubio said in a statement on Monday. “Any immigration reform we pursue should make our country safer and more secure. 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. Congress needs time to conduct more hearings and investigate how our immigration and national security systems could be improved going forward.”

But another key player in the immigration debate, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), wrote a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) Monday calling for a more explicit slowdown in the legislative process in order to fully grapple with the Boston attacks.

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

Immigration reformers are clearly nervous about the prospect of losing momentum to the attack. But they do have some reason to be hopeful the storm might quickly pass. The Tsarnaev brothers are not typical immigrants and have little connection to most of the policy issues under discussion. For one thing, there are fewer than 200 Chechen immigrants in the entire United States, according to one estimate. They reportedly arrived as refugees, a class that made up around 10 percent of green card recipients in 2012 and whose status is not a major topic in the current immigration reform debate. Finally, they came to the country as children, making it difficult to argue that better background checks might have uncovered some nefarious intention.

One particularly encouraging sign on the political front is that Republican leaders in the House, where immigration reform will face its toughest test, sounded determined on Monday to not let the bombings get in the way of passing a bill. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told Fox News that he thought the attack might slow legislation “for a couple of days,” but that “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.”

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), made a similar case to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

“We need a modern immigration system that helps us not only protect our border but protects national security and all of its aspects,” he said. “If anything I would say this is an argument for modernizing our immigration laws.”

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