Advocates of immigration reform fight back against push for delay

April 21, 2013

The Senate’s leading supporters of overhauling the nation’s immigration system sought Sunday to blunt a conservative effort to slow the pace of debate over their bill, saying the Boston Marathon bombings are a reason to move quickly to make changes.

“What happened in Boston and international terrorism I think should urge us to act quicker, not slower,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a member of a bipartisan group of eight senators who last week introduced a bill that would rewrite U.S. immigation laws, including for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

Graham, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” argued that “now is the time to bring all the 11 million out of the shadows and find out who they are. Most of them are here to work, but we may find some terrorists in our midst.”

Graham’s comments came after conservative commentators and lawmakers began urging a slower pace in considering new laws in light of the investigation into last Monday’s bombings, which killed three people and wounded more than 170.

The two ethnic Chechen brothers suspected of setting off the bombs immigrated to the United States from Kyrgyzstan as minors in 2002. The older one, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was killed last week in a shootout with police. The other, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was taken into custody by authorities on Friday and was hospitalized for gunshot wounds. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became a U.S. citizen in 2012.


“What happened in Boston and international terrorism I think should urge us to act quicker, not slower,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a member of a bipartisan group of eight senators who last week introduced a bill that would rewrite U.S. immigation laws, including for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

At the Senate Judiciary Committee’s first hearing on the immigration bill Friday, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) suggested that the Boston bombings should slow the pace of the reform effort, because learning the details about the immigration status of the suspects would raise new questions about current laws that should be addressed first. Other conservatives have also warned against rushing to act as the investigation unfolds.

“I agree with Senator Grassley,” Sen. Daniel Coats (R-Ind.) said on ABC News’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” He warned, “You usually end up with bad policy if you do it in an emotional way or an emotional reaction.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), another member of the bipartisan group of senators, cautioned against using the Boston bombings as an obstacle against overhaul efforts, about which some conservatives were skeptical even before the attack. “We’re not going to let them use what happened in Boston as an excuse because our law toughens things up,” Schumer, the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat said on “State of the Union.”

The Judiciary Committee is set to hold its second hearing on the immigration bill Monday.

Senators involved in drafting the bipartisan proposal have emphasized that the legislation would devote billions of dollars to pay for additional surveillance drones, new fencing and 3,500 customs agents to help secure the border with Mexico. The Department of Homeland Security would be required to establish an entry/exit tracking system to monitor immigrants who overstay their visas, and U.S. companies would be required to set up an electronic verification system to identify undocumented workers.

President Obama and most Democrats have pushed for an expedited pace for the legislation, arguing that the main provisions in the bill have been debated in Congress many times, including in 2007 when a comprehensive proposal died in the Senate. The bipartisan Senate group has said it hopes to have a bill out of committee and onto the Senate floor by early June.

With the Boston attack emerging as an issue in the immigration debate, the senators and their aides stressed that their bill offers the opportunity to learn more about illegal immigrants, something they say will make the county safer. The bill offers a path to legal status and eventually citizenship for illegal immigrants. The path for those who qualify begins with a registered provisional status and would involve paying a fine, some taxes, and undergoing a background check.

The bipartisan group has dispatched its most prominent conservative, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to assuage concerns from the political right about the bill’s two most sensitive elements, the path to citizenship, and the border security provisions.

“I think the biggest challenge, and what will ultimately decide this issue, is convincing conservatives that real border security is going to be a part of any package and that there are strong accountability measures and enforcement mechanisms,” said Tim Baker, a Florida-based GOP strategist.

The Senate proposal would eliminate a current provision that requires people to file for asylum protection within one year of arriving in the United States. Advocates of the change have argued that the provision is unnecessarily restrictive because many asylum-seekers are not in a position to file cumbersome paperwork in English so soon after entering the country, usually after fleeing a dangerous situation.

Advocates said it is rare for asylum seekers to come from Chechnya, despite the longtime struggle among militants there against Russian control of the region. In the late 1990s, Chechens were the No. 1 migrant group in Europe, but the numbers have never been large for the United States, said Kathleen Newland, co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute.

Most asylum-seekers from former Soviet Union territories have been evangelical Christians or Jews fleeing religious persecution, experts said. The Tsarnaev brothers are reportedly Muslim.

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