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Sen. Marco Rubio, flanked by Sens. Chuck Schumer (left) and John McCain, during Thursday's unveiling of the Senate immigration reform bill.
Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. Marco Rubio, flanked by Sens. Chuck Schumer (left) and John McCain, during Thursday's unveiling of the Senate immigration reform bill.

Immigration and terrorism

Immigration | Aftershocks of the Boston bombings reverberated all the way down to Capitol Hill, influencing debate on immigration reform

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.

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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.

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