How the Boston Bombing Suspects Became U.S. Citizens

How the Boston Bombing Suspects Became U.S. Citizens

In April 2002, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev apparently arrived in the United States on a tourist visa with his sons Tamerlan, 15, and Dzhokhar, 8 — now the suspects in the ongoing Boston Marathon bombing manhunt. Over time, the family gained asylum. Tamerlan became a citizen. We spoke with David Leopold of Leopold and Associates, an immigration attorney who's been practicing law in Cleveland since the early 1990s, who walked us through how that process worked — and why it would likely have been impossible to predict what happened to Tamerlan next.

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Getting a tourist visa

The simplest part of the family's trip would be acquiring the tourist visa. The State Department, which manages the issuing process, explains how to get a visa on its website. Fill out a form, have an interview, get your visa.

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Where the Tsarnaevs were applying from, like many of the details of the narrative at this point, is not entirely clear. In 2001, they apparently moved to Kyrgyzstan, which may have been where the family lived when it applied. 

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This visa application is the first point at which the government would begin the most important part of the process: conducting a security screening of the applicants. Given the number of tourists who visit the United States each year and the limited time period of the tourist visa (six months, at most), this is the least rigorous security screening conducted. (For what it's worth, the 9/11 hijackers used tourist and business visas to access the country.)

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Getting asylum

At some point within their first year of being here, the family would have had to apply for asylum. (If they'd already outstayed their six-month visa, they could have applied defensively if the government was trying to deport them.) Asylum-seekers, like those seeking refugee status, must demonstrate that they have a "well-founded fear" of persecution in their home countries. This is a necessarily subjective determination for the government to make, one that has been subject to various legal decisions over the years. (For those curious: Asylum seekers apply for refugee status from within the U.S.; refugees seek it from their home countries.)

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In the usual process, the State Department then completes another security review of the applicant — and any of the applicant's derivatives, meaning spouses and children. After September 11, 2001, the identification process for any visitor became much more technical, advancing from fingerprinting to more robust biometric identification. Once applying for asylum, the government dives deep into background: previous criminal convictions, any hint of involvement with terrorism.

Applicants don't necessarily know if they've failed a security check. According to Leopold, the immigration lawyer, they'll often be told that their application is being held for "administrative processing." While the application is held, the applicant is allowed to stay in the country, if they're already here.

At the time that the Tsarnaevs applied for asylum, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar were very young. There was almost certainly nothing in their background that would have raised any red flags; apparently, there was nothing in the father's either. Here, Leopold made a key point: "You can't predict future behavior." For any democratic country that wants to participate in international society, Leopold pointed out, you have to assume some level of risk. Despite that, "the systems they have in place," meaning those security screenings, are "doing the job."

It's not guaranteed that we'll learn significantly more about the family given the robust dossier the government has on them. According to Leopold, those records are very hard to have made public.

Becoming a permanent resident

After a year of holding status as asylum seekers, the family would be eligible to apply for green cards. Again, a security check, which by now would include reviews of the entire immigration application history to ensure that there was no apparent fraud. In 2007, Tamerlan Tsarnaev — the older brother, suspect 1 — received this status.

Becoming a citizen

Five years after getting a green card, a permanent resident can apply for naturalization. The application kicks off perhaps the most complex stretch of background-checking and validation.

An applicant must be of "good moral character," meaning that he or she cannot have committed any serious crimes, or, in some cases, even any minor ones. They have to demonstrate the ability to speak and write in English. They must pass a civics test. At that point, the applicant qualifies for citizenship.

The State Department will interview an applicant and launch another series of background checks, again including a review of the entire history of his immigration status. It's possible at this point that the applicant could be put back into the system for removal — deportation — if any application fraud is found, or a serious crime, for example.

But if not, he or she becomes a citizen, sworn in by a judge. That person then has all of the rights of a U.S. citizen. At some point, according to CNN, Dzhokhar became a naturalized citizen. Last September — September 11th, in fact — Tamerlan Tsarnaev took the oath, too, during a large ceremony held at TD Bank Garden.

Even had Tamerlan survived last night's manhunt, even if he'd been convicted of setting the bombs at the Boston Marathon, he'd have still been a citizen. Leopold was clear on this point. The government can't simply revoke citizenship because it wants to. If it found that Tamerlan's application for naturalization was fraudulent, it could. Which, Leopold indicated, might include the government deciding that his sworn oath was insincere. That oath reads, in part:

I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; … I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same …

The government could theoretically have decided that Tamerlan, in essence, didn't mean it. In that case, Leopold thought, it might have been possible he lost his status and would be deported. Even if none of the various levels of detailed security checks suggested he shouldn't be allowed to be a citizen, his broken word might have done the trick.

Top photo: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, at left, poses for a photo after graduating from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School.