Five Reasons Boston Has Nothing to Do with Immigration Reform

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on immigration reform yesterday.

Shortly after Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev detonated bombs near the finish line at the Boston marathon, killing 3 people and injuring over 200, conservatives opposed to immigration reform began exploiting the tragedy. Their goal?  Derailing or delaying the 844-page Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013. The bombings cast a pall over hearings on the immigration bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, where Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano fielded questions about the asylum process used by the boys' family to enter the country. Questions were also posed about the Department of Homeland Security's entry-exit system, which tracked the older of the two brothers' six-month trip to Russia, but not his re-entry.

Republican senator Rand Paul sent a letter to House Majority Leader Harry Reid saying Congress "should not proceed until we understand the specific failures of our immigration system." At the committee hearing itself, Republican senator Chuck Grassley said the attacks serve as "reminders that our immigration system is directly related to our sovereignty and national security matters." He criticized the bill as putting "legalization first, enforcement later." 

At a basic level it is, as Vermont senator Patrick Leahy pointed out in opening the hearings on immigration reform, unfair to "derail the dreams and futures of millions of hardworking people" on account of two troubled young men. While attacks such as the Boston bombings—committed by two foreign-born U.S. residents—naturally stoke fear and suspicion of outsiders, such reactionary sentiment should not drive public policy. The vast majority of the 700,000 naturalized immigrants and 50,000 asylum-seekers each year are law-abiding and pose no threat to national security. The same is true of the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country. Rather than having true concern for national security, those who seek to exploit the Boston attacks to derail immigration reform are doing so for purely political reasons. Here are the five reasons why their concerns are nonsense.


1. No reasonable change to our immigration laws would have stopped the Tsarnaevs.

As numerous commentators have pointed out, there is no reasonable change to the immigration system that would have stopped Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev from becoming radicalized and carrying out the attacks in Boston. Both came to the United States as children after their family was granted asylum. They were both in the country legally—one was a permanent resident, the other a naturalized citizen. There is no screening process that would have predicted the pair would grow up to carry out these attacks. 

Immigration reform critics also lambast the system for failing to catch the older brother when he left the country for a six-month trip to Russia. Yesterday, Napolitano seemed to contradict earlier FBI testimony when she said the system had indeed "pinged" Tamerlan Tsarnaev when he exited the U.S. in 2012. It is unclear on what basis Tamerlan was flagged, but administration officials have indicated that he made it onto the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) database, which tracks suspected international terrorists. But if Napolitano's testimony is correct, it shows the real failure was the FBI's. The Bureau was warned by the Russian government in 2011 that the older brother had become a follower of radical Islam and planned to travel abroad to "join unspecified underground groups." The FBI interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev and family members, but did not find evidence of terrorism. Because of redundancies in the immigration system, Tamerlan's exit from the country was noted by the Department of Homeland Security despite his name being misspelled on an airline manifest, but by the time he returned, the FBI's alert had expired. 

Short of ending the asylum program—which would be a humanitarian disaster—or subjecting international travelers to invasive searches and extensive questions—which would be an inconvenience, if not an outright violation of civil liberties—the immigration system could not have been expected to detect Tamerlan Tsarnaev's radicalization or his plot to place bombs at the Boston marathon.


2. Terrorism has little to do with illegal border crossings.

Almost all of the terrorist plots foiled by investigators since 9/11 have not been discovered because of visa irregularities or problems with entering or exiting the country. Law-enforcement investigations stopped them. To take the most recent examples, last year the FBI arrested Amine El Khalifi after revealing a plot to bomb the U.S. Capitol to undercover agents. Similarly, undercover law officers intercepted would-be Federal Reserve bomber Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, who believed he was acting on an order from al-Qaeda in detonating a dummy 1,000-pound bomb. 

In addition, as Dylan Matthews at The Washington Post points out, there doesn't appear to be a strong link between illegal entries into the country and terrorism. According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, a mere 2.8 percent of the total 1,532 terrorist attacks since 1970 have involved suspects crossing the border. The vast majority of terrorists are domestic; about half are committed by U.S. citizens. While Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev clearly shared views with foreign terrorist groups, their attack could as easily be considered as a religiously motivated act of domestic terror. Would-be terrorists are likely to follow rules closely to avoid detection, and the immigration process is not the most likely place they will raise flags. 


3. Immigration reform would improve security by allowing law enforcement to focus on criminals.

As Napolitano pointed out frequently in her testimony yesterday, the legalization program contained in the Immigration Modernization Act would reduce the strain on law enforcement and allow the department to focus its resources on dangerous criminals and suspects of terrorism rather than run-of-the-mill violations of immigration law. While the Obama administration has asked DHS to exercise prosecutorial discretion in deportation proceedings, the system is nevertheless overburdened with cases involving economic refugees who pose no threat to national security and want nothing other than to work in the United States. What's more, by requiring the undocumented to come forward and register with the government, the legalization program would arm DHS with more information about who is coming in and out of the country. By legalizing the undocumented, "We know who they are. We know where they are," as Napolitano said yesterday. "And by the way, from a police perspective, once these people know that every time they interact with law enforcement they won't be subject to removal, it will help with the reporting of crimes, the willingness to be a witness and so forth."

The bill also allocates $4.5 billion for improving border security, getting a biometric entry-exit system—one that employs non-falsifiable identifiers such as fingerprints—up and running, and expanding background checks. It also provides for substantial investment in new technologies to patrol the border. It is unlikely any of those improvements would have led DHS to detain or question either of the suspected Boston bombers, but improved biometric identification could have made it harder for the 9/11 hijackers to use forged documents to enter the country. For those who care about security, there is no greater boon to law enforcement than the provisions contained in this bill.


4. Those who want to derail immigration reform because of the Boston bombings don't support the bill anyway.

It may seem obvious to the cynical political observer, but conservatives urging the Gang of Eight to delay or halt their bill were opposed to reform even before the Boston attacks. Their opposition is not a considered policy response to the tragedy, but a craven political tactic. Members of anti-immigration groups such as Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies—two groups at the forefront of the opposition—have long opposed anything other than "self-deportation" for the undocumented. Senator Rand Paul has at best been fickle on immigration, swaying with the political winds; he has intermittently opposed birthright citizenship, supported legalizing the undocumented, and now once again opposes moving forward with reform. It is perhaps unreasonable to expect that such a major piece of legislation will be free of political chicanery, but it is important to note that Boston-inspired opposition to immigration reform is not borne of sincere concern for Americans' security.


5. The Obama administration has done more than any other administration to beef up border security.

A related criticism made by opponents of immigration reform is that the Boston bombing shows that President Obama has been lax on enforcement. To the contrary, the current administration has done more to enforce immigration law than any previous administration. The number of border agents has doubled to more than 21,000 over the past eight years, the administration has deported undocumented immigrants at record rates, expanded the fence along the Southern border, and invested in drones and other high-tech enforcement aides. According to a recent report from the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the United States now spends $18 billion per year on immigration enforcement—more than the sum total of all other federal law-enforcement efforts combined. Current enforcement efforts are unprecedented, and far exceed the enforcement requirements laid out in the 2007 immigration bill. Further adding to this investment, the current proposal would allocate $3 billion to hire 3,500 additional border-patrol agents as well as invest in technology. Another $1.5 billion is earmarked to improve the fence along the southern border. 

Our immigration system serves dual humanitarian and national-security purposes. Some opponents of reform see these as conflicting goals, but they're not. By setting unreasonably low caps on visas and failing to account for the economic demands of U.S. business, the current system has incentivized immigrants to break the law and created a massive population about which we have little information. Only a mass legalization program can rectify that problem and allow DHS to focus its efforts on national security. In what universe does killing reform efforts further the goal of improving the security of the system?

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