WASHINGTON—The initial round of formal hearings over the newest immigration overhaul push occurred Friday, with the Boston Marathon bombings casting its large shadow over the congressional proceedings.
The ongoing situation in Massachusetts first led to an absence at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing over the bipartisan 844-page immigration reform bill: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, expected to be the day’s key witness, canceled her appearance in light of Friday’s manhunt for the remaining suspect in the attacks.
Then Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, referred to the attack in the hearing’s opening remarks. “Given the events of this week, it’s important for us to understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system,” he said.
Reform backers accused Grassley of politicizing the tragedy as its aftermath still unfolded.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the authors of the bill, asked “that all of us not jump to conclusions regarding the events in Boston, not conflate those events with this legislation.”
Highlighting the complicated dynamics surrounding a debate that has some Republicans and Democrats on the same side, a spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., another key sponsor of the legislation, also warned against jumping to conclusions and using the marathon blasts for political points.
“Americans will reject any attempt to tie the losers responsible for the attacks on Boston with the millions of law-abiding immigrants currently living in the U.S.,” Alex Conant said.
Despite those efforts by the bill’s supporters to keep Boston out of the debate, the attacks will shed light on the weaknesses of the current immigration system just as Congress considers extensive changes.
Not long after the legislation’s first congressional hearing, Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, published a report revealing that one of the bombing suspects could have been deported from the United States after a 2009 domestic violence conviction.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the 26-year-old Chechen native killed during the frantic early Friday morning shootout with police in a Boston suburb and a legal U.S. resident, was allowed to remain in the country after his conviction, according to Judicial Watch. The FBI later confirmed it had interviewed Tsarnaev two years ago at the request of an unnamed foreign government but found no issues with him.
His brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, captured Friday night after a daylong manhunt, became a U.S. Citizen on Sept. 11, 2012, the 11th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks. The backgrounds of the two suspects still are being investigated and much is unknown, but, in 2011, Judicial Watch uncovered intelligence documents showing that Osama bin Laden had ordered the creation of an al-Qaeda training camp in Chechnya, an Islamic-dominated region that declared its independence from Russia in 1991. Chechen Islamic militants have carried out attacks in Russia for years.
Lawmakers urging a cautious approach to the Senate immigration bill will likely use the journeys these two men took from refugees to legal immigrants to suspected bombers. These opponents argue that any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants currently in the country should not be addressed until the current legal immigration system is streamlined and upgraded.
Grassley will not be the only lawmaker asking, “How do we ensure that people who wish to do us harm are not eligible for benefits under the immigration laws?”
The sweeping Senate immigration bill, authored by four Senate Republicans and four Senate Democrats, attempts to strengthen the border and fix current legal immigration programs, all while providing a 13-year path to legalization for those here illegally as long as they pay fees, taxes, and a $2,000 fine.
The legislation pits Republicans against Republicans. Conservatives who oppose the bill worry that it’s too ambitious and contains too many loopholes.
“I am wary of trying to do this all in one fell swoop,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said at Friday’s hearing. “Good policy never flows from massive bills that seek to fix every problem in a single, sweeping piece of legislation. Such wide-ranging legislation inevitably produces unforeseen effects and unintended consequences.”
But a growing number of Republicans are changing course regarding immigration, partly because of last year’s election defeats and the outsized share of the Hispanic vote won by Democrats. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Republicans “have got to compete for the Hispanic voter.”
Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, stood behind the senators when they introduced the bill on April 18, and evangelical church leaders spent a day last week on Capitol Hill lobbying for immigration reform.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a conservative economist and former aide to George W. Bush, argued at Friday’s hearing that the bill would increase the pace of economic growth by almost a percentage point. He added that such an expansion would reduce the cumulative federal deficit by more than $2.5 trillion through higher tax revenues and lower spending on safety nets.
But former Sen. Jim DeMint, the new head of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said implementing the bill would be too costly.
“At a time of trillion dollar deficits and $17 trillion in debt, the cost of implementing amnesty and the strain it will add to already fragile entitlement and welfare programs should be of serious concern for everyone,” he said.
Conservative criticism of the bill will include the argument that granting citizenship to illegal immigrants violates the rule of law and rewards unlawful behavior. But, in an effort to avoid alienating too many Hispanic voters, opponents are signaling they will focus on making economic arguments, such as the bill’s costs and its effect on a still volatile job market.
“This proposal would economically devastate low-income American citizens and current legal immigrants,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. “It will pull down their wages and reduce their job prospects. Including those legalized, this bill would result in at least 30 million new foreign workers over a 10-year period—more than the entire population of the state of Texas.”
Rubio, a Cuban-American with 2016 presidential ambitions, is fighting against many of his Republican colleagues, and in the process, putting his conservative bona fides on the line, according to numerous conservative radio hosts.
“We all wish we didn’t have this problem, but we do,” Rubio said. “Leaving things as they are—that’s the real amnesty.”
The feud is only expected to grow as the bill gets dissected and debated in the coming weeks.
With the complete text of the voluminous bill not being made public until 2 a.m. Wednesday (just two days before the first hearing), many politicians and their staffs are just beginning to digest its details. But initial concerns already have emerged.
Sen. Lee of Utah said the bill unwisely treats the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country as a monolithic group who were drawn to America for the same reasons. He also criticized how the bill lumps issues most lawmakers can agree on, such as border security and increasing the flow of high-skilled immigrants, with controversial items such as how to handle the nation’s illegal immigrant population.
Another hearing is scheduled for next week, but Lee fears the process is being rushed. “Reforms of this magnitude and importance deserve more than a couple of hastily scheduled hearings,” he said.
When Rubio’s turn in front of the podium arrived during Thursday’s formal unveiling of the immigration package, he began by veering off script.
“I’ve changed my mind,” he said in front of a room packed with reporters. Rubio then started to walk away before coming back.
“Just joking,” he laughed.
There may be times during the next rounds of what will surely be a contentious debate when Rubio will be tempted to change his mind again … minus the laughter.