Immigration Reform’s First Big Test: The Boston Bombing

Critics of immigration reform are already invoking the marathon bombing suspects as a reason to slow the Senate's controversial immigration bill

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Senator John McCain speaks during a news conference on immigration reform on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., on April 18, 2013

It was supposed to be a week of triumph, not tragedy. Having spent months painstakingly crafting a comprehensive immigration bill, a bipartisan group of Senators were finally set to unveil their proposal to broad fanfare. Instead the bill’s rollout was derailed by the bombings in Boston and the massive manhunt that followed, a riveting spectacle that played out in real time on national TV.

Voters sat glued to their flat screens as black-clad SWAT teams crept through suburban neighborhoods and Black Hawk helicopters orbited the empty streets of a major city on complete lockdown. Immigration became an afterthought. Conference calls and rallies were canceled. A hearing on Capitol Hill garnered attention only for the questions it raised about the bill’s durability. And Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was forced to reschedule planned testimony, slowing the bill’s progress through the Senate.

Now the aftermath of the terrorist attack presents the first major test of the Senators’ ability to shepherd a controversial overhaul of U.S. immigration law through a bitterly divided Congress — a moment that may determine whether the bombings are a speed bump or a spike strip for the landmark legislation.

(PHOTOS: Images: Joy and Relief in Boston After Bombing Suspect’s Arrest)

Even before the immigration status of the suspects became clear, critics were wielding the Boston bombings in an effort to slow the bill’s momentum. At the first immigration hearing on Friday, Chuck Grassley, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking member, invoked the April 15 attacks in a plea for caution.

“Given the events of this week, it’s important for us to understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system,” Grassley said. “While we don’t yet know the immigration status of the people who terrorized the communities in Massachusetts, when we find out, it will help shed light on the weaknesses of our system.”

Early reports suggest that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, who continued to elude investigators’ grasp late Friday, became a naturalized U.S. citizen on Sept. 11, 2012, after first being granted asylum and permanent residency. But regardless of the status of Tsarnaev and his elder brother Tamerlan, 26, who was killed in a shootout with police early Friday, history suggests that the immigration debate will be transformed by the tragedy.

It wouldn’t be the first time an immigration bill was derailed by a terrorist attack. President George W. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox huddled at the White House just days before the attacks on September 11, 2001, to discuss a border agreement, with Bush readying a reform bill that would have provided resident status to more than 3 million illegal immigrants. Congress never took up the plan.

“One casualty of today’s event is going to be the immigration bill,” says Michael Hammond, legislative counsel of Gun Owners of America, a gun-rights advocacy group. “People are going to look much more carefully at the extent to which we have let terrorists into this country and will let more terrorists into the country if this immigration bill is passed.”

Reform backers tried to push back. In a joint statement, GOP Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said, “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: immigration reform will strengthen our nation’s security by helping us identify exactly who has entered our country and who has left — a basic function of government that our broken immigration system is incapable of accomplishing today.”

While supporters of the bipartisan compromise are optimistic about the bill’s chances in the Senate, its odds in the House of Representatives have never been rosy. Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican, pointed to the fact that Napolitano canceled her Senate testimony as evidence that Boston was already bogging down the process. “I now think that proponents for open borders have to stop and reconsider what it is they want to do,” King said. “We need to step back and look at the big picture, at all the different ways that people come into the country, including asylum.”

On Twitter, conservatives opposed to immigration reform were quick to point to the tragedy as a reason to scuttle immigration reform. “I think we can safely say that [Senator Marco] Rubio’s amnesty plan is DOA. And should be. Time to tighten, not loosen, immigration policy,” tweeted Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association. “Because of chain migration, we let the whole family in, even the losers & terrorists,” Ann Coulter wrote. The conservative website Judicial Watch has raised questions as to why the elder suspect wasn’t deported after a domestic-violence arrest.

Alex Conant, a spokesman for Rubio, says that while the investigation will have to sort out on the role, if any, the immigration system played in what happened, it won’t be a setback for the legislation. “Regardless of the circumstances in Boston, immigration reform that strengthens our borders and gives us a better accounting of who is in our country and why will improve our national security,” he says. “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.”

“I’m certain that there will be several on the right wing who will try to use this to their political advantage to undermine the prospect of reform. I hope that they’re not successful, obviously,” says Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party and founder of Americans by Choice, a center-right organization supporting immigration reform. “Part of me thinks that it’s more evidence for the fact that our existing system is broken and needs to be modernized and fixed. One of the parts of the immigration reform plan that’s out there includes background checks, and presumably these brothers would have been subject to background checks.”

Reform supporters worry that the attacks will rekindle anti-immigration sentiment against a bill that is fundamentally pro–legal immigration. Others worry about a poison pill included by opponents designed ostensibly in response to the attacks.

The Obama Administration, for its part, is waiting to see how events play out. “Everyone is speculating about what it means for immigration,” says a White House official. “We don’t know. Let’s wait for the facts.”

— With reporting by Michael Scherer / Washington