Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), left, made a joint appearance Monday at the City… (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune )
WASHINGTON — The divide within the Republican Party over immigration reform was on full view Monday, as top party leaders made a case for overhauling the laws even as conservative senators argued that the Boston bombings showed the need to go slow.
Momentum appeared to be on the side of the reformers. They have amassed an unusually robust alliance of business, labor and faith leaders that on Monday included the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who said "now is the time" to fix the immigration system.
Within the GOP, House Speaker John A. Boehner signaled support for the immigration reform effort. And one of the party's most influential thinkers, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the former vice presidential nominee, publicly took on a role as an advocate of reform.
Boehner, interviewed on Fox News, was asked about the effect the Boston bombings might have on the debate.
"Primarily, I'm in the camp of, 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," he said.
Ryan took a similar stance.
"If anything, this is an argument for modernizing our immigration laws," he said, standing alongside a leading backer of immigration reform, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), after a joint appearance at the City Club of Chicago. "We need it for national security reasons. We need it for the economy."
"We have an opportunity to have a real long-term solution," Ryan added. "We do not want to have a society where we have different classes of people who cannot reach their American dream by not being a full citizen."
The statements by Boehner and Ryan are important because House Republicans so far have seemed more resistant to the idea of comprehensive immigration reform than their Senate counterparts. Few Republicans in the House represent districts with sizable immigrant populations. The Senate is scheduled to take up the immigration bill later this spring, and supporters hope it will pass there with a significant majority, putting pressure on the House to act.
Even in the Senate, however, Republicans remain divided, with a significant group opposed to the reform proposals. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), an influential voice in the GOP's tea party wing, said security questions arising from the immigration path of the Boston bombing suspects must be answered before Congress moves forward on the bill.
The two bombing suspects, brothers of Chechen origin, emigrated from Russia as youngsters a decade ago. Their family sought political asylum. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, who was naturalized as a U.S. citizen Sept. 11, 2012, remains hospitalized following his capture. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died last week after a shootout with police, had a citizenship application pending.
"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?" Paul said in a letter to the Senate leadership. His statement incorrectly recounted the migration route of the Tsarnaev family, who did not live in Chechnya.
In addition, conservatives on the Senate Judiciary Committee engaged in a heated exchange with Democrats over the immigration bill.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the panel, shouted in protest when Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) mentioned those "who were pointing to what happened — the terrible tragedy in Boston — as, I would say, an excuse for not doing a bill or delaying it many months or years."
"I never said that!" Grassley interjected. "I never said that!"
"I didn't say you did, sir," Schumer replied.
"I didn't say anything about delaying the bill," insisted Grassley, staring across the dais at Schumer.
The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who pounded his gavel to restore order, said that linking the bombings in Boston to the reform effort "troubled" him.
"Let no one be so cruel as to try to use the heinous acts of these two young men last week to derail the dreams and futures of millions of hardworking people," Leahy said. "I urge restraint."
Schumer said the bill could be amended during the expected monthlong committee debate in May.
"If there are things that come up as a result of what happen in Boston that require improvement, let's add them to the bill," Schumer said. "Certainly our bill tightens up things that would make a Boston less likely."
Mascaro reported from Washington and Pearson from Chicago.