If the political stars had been aligned differently, the home-made bombs that exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line earlier this month would have derailed the fast-moving immigration effort on Capitol Hill. It is not uncommon for lawmakers to shy away from hard-nosed legislative deal-making on controversial issues in the wake of such unexpected catastrophes.
However, fearing backlash from the Hispanic voting bloc for not doing something about the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, lawmakers are forging ahead with a wide-ranging bill.
The impact of the bombings on the immigration debate has narrowed in on two isolated policy arenas—the screenings that take place for foreigners fleeing political persecution and a yet-to-be-implemented system for tracking which foreigners are in the United States at any given time.
The Tsarnaev brothers alleged to have carried out the Boston attack were immigrants. They were granted asylum from the war-torn Chechnya region in Russia more than 10 years ago as “derivatives” (i.e., minor children) of their father. After a year, under the law, they were given green cards. Nearly 10 years went by, and both brothers applied for citizenship. The younger brother, Dzhokhar, became a naturalized citizen in September. The application for Tamerlan, the older brother, was still pending when he died.
No one on Capitol Hill opposes the idea that foreigners should be granted asylum if they face persecution in their home countries. In the wake of the bombings, however, lawmakers are saying they want to be sure that those refugees are properly vetted. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said Thursday that he wants applicants who are “engaging in aggressive tactics” against an oppressor in their home countries to be screened in terms of their susceptibility to “doing the same thing elsewhere."
"That obviously ought to be a part of our consideration in granting political asylum,” he said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., expressed concern at a hearing Tuesday about whether asylum applicants are “adequately screened for national security threats.” The Senate immigration bill would ease the timing on granting asylum to applicants, and she wants to be sure the claims of “credible fear” in their home countries don’t get short shrift.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is among the first on Capitol Hill to point out the shortcomings of the travel-tracking system highlighted by the bombing, in which a clerical error allowed the elder bombing suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, to come back into the United States from Russia without U.S. officials knowing it. “It just kind of highlighted it more than anything else,” Grassley told National Journal Daily, speaking about the weak entry/exit tracking system. “It would still be an issue even if the bombing hadn’t happened.”
The entry/exit tracking concept is a holdover from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when policymakers said the United States authorities should know which foreigners enter the country and which foreigners leave the country. It turned out to be a nightmare to implement, especially on the “exit” side. Remember the sad-looking, unused US-VISIT terminals that populated airports in the mid-2000s? That was the Department of Homeland Security’s purported solution for keeping track of the “exiters.” They were supposed to take the time--voluntarily, perhaps by standing in line--to swipe their passports into the machine before they left. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to understand why it didn’t work.
The entry/exit system would get a makeover under the Senate immigration proposal put forth by the “Gang of Eight” Republicans and Democrats. The bill would require air and sea carriers to report foreigner exits to the federal government using machine-readable visas and passports. So far, so good, although it is not clear what would happen to people like Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who carried a Russian passport.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is one of several “gang” members who say the bombing incident provides an opportunity for lawmakers to improve the system through a thorough examination of what happened with the elder Tsarnaev, providing an object lesson in what needs to be changed. “That shouldn’t hold up the bill,” he said.
As far as asylum, the current screening process is fairly rigorous. Applicants’ identities, complete with fingerprints, are verified and checked against all law enforcement databases, including those in the Department of Defense, said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. For Tamerlan, who was briefly under investigation by the FBI, DHS’s warning note probably would have popped up in the process, except he was a teenager at the time.
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