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Boston suspects' background threatens to derail immigration bill

Some Republicans voice second thoughts about immigration reform legislation in light of the revelation that the Boston bombing suspects are ethnic Chechens who came to the U.S. from Russia.

April 19, 2013|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau
  • “Given the events of this week, it's important for us to understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said at a hearing on the immigration reform bill.
“Given the events of this week, it's important for us to understand… (Harry Hamburg, Associated…)

WASHINGTON — The background of the Boston bombing suspects quickly emerged Friday as a potential hurdle to immigration reform, as renewed fears of terrorism gave conservative opponents a fresh argument against a proposed new law.

"Given the events of this week, it's important for us to understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system," Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said at a hearing.

"How can individuals evade authorities and plan such attacks on our soil?" he asked. "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 before us?"

Conservative commentators echoed Grassley.

The proposed law's "sponsors should delay debate on the bill until there is a full and complete account of how the children who became terrorists came into the country," wrote Hugh Hewitt, a radio host, referring to the brothers who are suspected of planting two bombs at the Boston Marathon that killed three people and injured more than 170.

After it became known that the older brother had died in a shootout with police, Ann Coulter tweeted: "It's too bad Suspect # 1 won't be able to be legalized by Marco Rubio, now." Rubio, the conservative Republican senator from Florida, is one of the eight senators who have negotiated the immigration proposal.

The suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, are ethnic Chechens who came to the U.S. from Russia about a decade ago as refugees and were granted asylum, a law enforcement official said.

Tamerlan was a legal permanent resident, and Dzhokhar became a citizen on Sept. 11, 2012.

Earlier in the week, GOP allies of the sweeping immigration overhaul had seemed to be gaining ground inside their party with the argument that passing a comprehensive bill was politically important for Republicans.

But the 844-page bill embodies a series of politically complex compromises, and the uncertainty generated by the bombings seems likely to give new impetus to its opposition.

Backers believe the package needs to move through Congress quickly to avoid entanglement in next year's election campaigns, and they responded rapidly to the new challenge.

"I'd like to ask that all of us not jump to conclusions regarding the events in Boston — or try to conflate those events with this legislation," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the chief architects of the bipartisan proposal, said during the hearing. "In general, we're a safer country when law enforcement knows who is here, has their fingerprints, photos, etc. … and no longer needs to look at needles through haystacks."

Two of the leading Republicans among the bill's sponsors, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said in a statement: "In the wake of this week's terrorist attack in Boston, some have already suggested that the circumstances of this terrible tragedy are justification for delaying or stopping entirely the effort for comprehensive immigration reform. In fact the opposite is true.

"By modernizing our system of legal immigration, identifying and conducting background checks on people here illegally, and finally securing our border, we will make America more secure."

Many Republican strategists see embracing immigration reform as a necessary first step for the party to reach out to Latino voters.

"Here's the question we all have to ask: Is this going to give senators an out — a reason to vote no?" said Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the liberal Center for American Progress. "How directly do the events get folded into the conversation?"

Within the GOP, the debate has rapidly turned heated.

On Wednesday, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said that Al Qaeda has camps in Mexico training people to come to the U.S. and act "Hispanic when they're radical Islamists."

A Republican-aligned pro-immigration reform group immediately labeled his comments "unacceptable, offensive and ignorant."

"Using a national tragedy to further his own anti-immigration reform agenda is not only shameful, but also a blatant attempt to disingenuously twist public sentiment at a vulnerable time," said Jennifer S. Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, which counts former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as an advisor.

Rubio, anticipating that the issue might build, pushed back early against the idea of connecting the events in Boston to immigration policy. "We should really be very cautious about using language that links these two things in any way," he told reporters Tuesday.

Friday, his spokesman, Alex Conant, said that although there were "legitimate policy questions" about the role that the immigration system played in Boston, "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 U.S. and those hoping to immigrate here in the future."

Friday's hearing was the first on the ambitious bill. The legislation would provide a 13-year path to citizenship for most of those now in the country without authorization, requiring them to pay taxes, fees and a $2,000 fine. Legalization would be tied to increased efforts to secure the Southwest border with a double-layer fence and drone surveillance.

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

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