Boston Attack Casts Shadow Over Immigration Debate

Senators clash at hearing over terror's impact on immigration reform
Sen. Chuck Grassley (left) looks at Sen. Patrick Leahy.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (left) looks at Sen. Patrick Leahy.


A fiery partisan exchange broke out Monday as the Senate Judiciary Committee heard a second day of testimony on the bipartisan immigration proposal agreed to by the so-called “Gang of Eight” Republicans and Democrats.

Ranking member Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa) lashed out at Sen. Charles Schumer after the New York Democrat suggested critics of immigration reform were using last week’s attacks on the Boston Marathon, which left three dead and 170 wounded, as an “excuse” to delay the bill.

“I never said that!” Grassley yelled. Grassley said during a hearing Friday that the Boston attacks, perpetrated by a recently naturalized immigrant and his legal resident brother, raised questions about the immigration system.

Schumer backed off, saying he was not referring to any of the senators on the Judiciary Committee or to witnesses called to testify.

Earlier Monday, Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) sent a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) urging the Senate to slow its consideration of the 844-page immigration bill.

“We should not proceed until we understand the specific failures of our immigration system,” Paul wrote in the letter. “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?”

The exchange between Grassley and Schumer was not the first reference to the Boston attack, which has cast a pall over the immigration debate since it occurred one week ago.

Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) opened the hearing by admonishing critics of the immigration bill who reference the immigration status of the Boston attackers.

Such critics are attempting to “exploit” the terrorist attack to derail the legislation, Leahy said, adding it was “cruel” to use the events in Boston to “derail the dreams of millions of hardworking people.”

“Let’s not let comprehensive immigration reform fall victim to what we saw with the Violence Against Women Act and guns,” Leahy said.

The Violence Against Women Act, reauthorized earlier this year, failed to win Republican support in the Senate. The gun control legislation championed by the Democrats was pulled from consideration last week after a bipartisan measure on background checks failed to win the 60 votes necessary for approval.

Grassley responded by saying he did not feel it was inappropriate for supporters of gun control to reference the mass shooting last December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., or for supporters of tighter regulation of fertilizer plants to reference last week’s devastating fertilizer explosion in West, Texas.

The sprawling and wide-ranging hearing illustrated the complexity and drama of U.S. immigration law. Senators heard from representatives of the agriculture, construction, tourism, and high-tech industries; experts who study immigration policy; and former Rep. Jim Kolbe (R., Az.), who supports measures to extend family reunification policy to gay and lesbian spouses and partners.

Security concerns remained paramount, however, with supporters of immigration legislation arguing that the bill would make the country safer by regularizing the status of the 11 to 12 million illegal aliens in the United States, increasing border security, and improving the system that monitors visa exit and entry.

Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) said the current visa system, overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, is broken and wondered why the Senate would empower the agency further. He also cited studies that show 40 percent of illegal immigration is due to overstayed visas.

Leahy said Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who had postponed a scheduled appearance before the committee due to fast-breaking developments in the investigation into the Boston marathon attack, would testify on immigration reform Tuesday morning.

Even if it passes the Senate, the immigration bill is expected to face opposition in the Republican-controlled House where a bipartisan group of congressmen is also working on a compromise proposal.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), widely considered the intellectual leader of the House conservatives, told reporters Monday during an appearance in Chicago with Rep. Luis Guttierez (D., Ill.) that immigration reform would make Americans more secure.

“We have a broken immigration system, and if anything, what we see in Boston is that we have to fix and modernize our immigration system for lots of reasons,” Ryan said, according to a story in Politico.

His remarks mirrored those made by other supporters of comprehensive immigration reform in the days since the apprehension of the Boston bombers.

“Let’s not keep our present system, which everyone admits is broken,” Schumer said during Monday’s hearing.