Should the Boston Marathon bombings impact immigration reform?Posted on Tuesday, April 23, 2013
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, opponents of immigration reform have argued that reform efforts should be slowed or stopped because the bombers were Chechen immigrants. In the words of Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), “The fact that foreign nationals were behind the attack underscores the argument that creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants could endanger the public.”
Positioning prospective immigrants as “dangerous foreigners” and using the resulting wave of xenophobia as a way to derail the reform process is nothing new. We have only to look back to the summer of 2001, when lawmakers were coming together to promote comprehensive immigration reform. After the terrorist attacks on September 11th, those who were already opposed to immigration reform effectively halted the reform process by linking immigration to national security.
Before the Boston bombings occurred, some anti-immigration legislators had already begun their efforts to stall immigration reform by asserting that the “Gang of Eight” was proceeding too rapidly. Many observers have recognized that “running the clock out” on controversial legislation is almost business as usual in Washington these days. Indeed, President Bush’s comprehensive immigration reform bill of 2007 was defeated in exactly this way.
The April 15th attack has handed immigration reform opponents a convenient platform for putting the brakes on the legislative process. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on April 22, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) argued that immigration reform should not go forward “until the national security weaknesses exposed by the Boston bombings are addressed.”
However, the attempt to link immigration to a heightened risk of terrorism disregards several key provisions of the Senate immigration reform bill aimed at making the U.S. more secure. The bill includes four separate background checks as immigrants move from undocumented aliens to U.S. citizens. It tightens the rules on employer verification of workers’ immigration status, and calls for a new system to track exits and entries by non-citizens.
The young men who committed the Boston atrocity entered the U.S. legally in 2003 at the ages of 9 and 15. Their family was eventually granted political asylum in a process involving substantial background checks. Neither the boys nor their parents were deemed to be a security risk. In 2012, Dzhokhar, the younger of the two, was granted U.S. citizenship. But his older brother Tamerlan’s naturalization application was placed on hold due to concerns about his ties to radical Islam. In 2011, the FBI had investigated him after Russian authorities advised that he might be a security risk.
The Boston events have nothing to do with reforming the U.S. immigration system so that law-abiding undocumented immigrants can, with proper screening and penalties, gain legal status. If there was a rectifiable “failure” in the days leading up to the bombings, it was a failure of our internal intelligence system. After completing a background check on Tamerlan, the FBI concluded that he posed no immediate threat and had no grounds for further investigation.
It is arguable that dedicating more resources to the investigation and surveillance of potential terrorists within our own borders could have prevented the Boston mayhem. Perhaps the Oklahoma City bombings by Timothy McVeigh in 1995 or the Unabomber’s rampage between 1978 and 1995 could also have been prevented in this way. Keeping our citizens safe from extremists is a vital objective, and the Senate reform bill, with its solid security protections, is an important step in this direction.
A determined minority wielding misleading arguments can attempt to subvert the immigration reform process, but the fact remains that nearly 2/3 of U.S. citizens support a path to legalization for undocumented residents. Moreover, the proposed reforms will help us to better identify who has entered our country and who has left – something we are unable to do today. While the tragedy in Boston will test the resilience of the reform coalition in Congress, it should not be used to justify a failure to act on one of the most pressing issues of our time.