“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?”
— Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, April 22, 2013
In journalism, there’s an old rule: The only dumb question is the one not asked.
Still, Paul’s question in a letter urging delay of comprehensive immigration reform appears to ask the wrong question, based on the information that is now known about the Boston Marathon bombing suspects and their arrival in the United States.
One undisputed fact about the Tsarnaev brothers is that they were both minors when they arrived in the United States. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was 8 or 9, while his older brother Tamerlan was 15 or 16.
Second, they ended up in the United States because their father, Anzor Tsarnaev, applied for asylum.
It has been reported that Anzor first arrived on a tourist visa in April 2002, with the youngest son, while Tamerlan and two sisters remained behind. The chronology is still a bit confused; some accounts just have the father and Dzhokhar arriving, which would make sense because the State Department, in granting tourist visas, looks for family connections (such as a family) back home. But other accounts have both Anzor and his wife, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, arriving in April with either one or both boys.
Once in the United States, Anzor applied for asylum. According to his sister Maret, she helped him write the petition. (Note that there is a difference: Applicants apply for refugee status if they are outside the United States; they apply for asylum once they are in the United States or at the border.)
But in any case, a spouse and children under the age of 21 are covered by one parent’s status. The rest of the family could be brought into the United States under a policy of family reunification, as long as the petition is filed within two years of being granted asylum.
Finally, the family did not emigrate from Chechnya; they were only ethnically Chechen. Anzor apparently grew up in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, though he may have lived briefly in Chechnya in the early 1990s. Both boys also were born in Kyrgyzstan, but the family left after run-ins with government authorities and settled in a Russian region that borders Chechnya known as Dagestan. (Some accounts say Tamerlan was born in Russia, but traveled on a Kyrgyzstan passport.)
From a U.S. immigration perspective, the family came from “Russia,” not a particular part of Russia. Moreover, Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” At this point, we do not know the case Anzor made in seeking asylum, but apparently it was compelling enough to be granted.
Interestingly, despite the turmoil in Chechnya, relatively few ethnic Chechens have sought refuge in the United States. Almut Rochowanski, coordinator of programs and advocacy for the Chechnya Advocacy Network, said there is no hard data, but she estimates that only about 1,000 Chechens are living in the United States. She said Chechens have preferred to settle in Europe — where there are more than 100,000 refugees — and the few who made it to the United States are rather spread out across the country.
In the case of the Tsarnaev family, there were already other relatives in the United States and Canada, which was probably the attraction.
We sought further clarification from Paul spokeswoman Moira Bagley but, as usual, did not receive a response.
The Pinocchio Test
When asking provocative questions, it is important to get the facts correct.
Paul appears to suggest that U.S. immigration officials, in granting an asylum petition from the father, could have discerned that two minor children, after living in the United States for a decade, would eventually commit a terrorist act. That would require an extraordinary amount of clairvoyance.
In any case, the key question for immigration officials was the asylum case made by their father; the minor children had nothing to do with it.
Moreover, Paul misidentified the region from which the Tsarnaev family emigrated. The boys who allegedly turned into terrorists may have been ethnic Chechens but they did not emigrate from Chechnya. Paul is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; one would expect he would know more about such elementary geography.
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