WASHINGTON – The suspects in the Boston bombings were a focal point of Friday’s Senate hearing to review a contentious immigration bill, as one key lawmaker sought to determine whether flaws in the current system allowed the Chechens easy entry into the U.S.
“Given the events of this week, it’s important for us to understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system,” said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“While we don’t yet know the immigration status of the people who have terrorized the communities in Massachusetts, when we find out it will help shed light on the weaknesses of our system,” Grassley said.
The suspects are brothers, ethnic Chechens who immigrated in the last decade from Dagestan in southern Russia. They arrived in 2002 with their father on a tourist visa and later sought asylum. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was 15 and his younger brother, Dzhokhar was 8 when they arrived in the U.S.
The two bombings at the Boston Marathon last week killed three bystanders and injured 170 people. Pictures of the two suspects were released Thursday evening and within hours the older brother Tamerlan was killed in a shoot-out with police. His younger brother Dzhokhar is in custody.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was scheduled to be the star witness for the first hearing on the immigration bill but canceled her appearance to monitor the ongoing situation in Boston.
“How can individuals evade authorities and plan such attacks on our soil?” Grassley said. “How can we beef up security checks on people who wish to enter the United States? How do we ensure that people who wish to do us harm are not eligible for benefits under the immigration laws, including this new bill before us?”
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) took umbrage at Grassley’s statement and cautioned him against conflating the terrorist attack with the omnibus bill that he and other politicians known as the “Gang of Eight” drafted.
“We’re a safer country when law enforcement knows who is here,” Schumer said.
The legislation creates a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants and sets goals for border security that supporters are counting on to catch 90 percent of all illegal border crossers. Schumer pointed out that background checks would be required for those living illegally in the U.S. before they could be accepted as citizens.
The bill has been discussed for months behind closed doors among the bipartisan authors who include Schumer, U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).
Although labor and business leaders along with representative from the Hispanic community have been included in the negotiations, the result was not made public in an 800 page bill until Wednesday.
The legislation would allow an additional 200,000 unskilled workers each year into the country, as well as their spouses and children, along with 110,000 skilled workers and 112,000 farm workers.
The illegal immigrants granted amnesty would have to wait ten years before they are eligible to take advantage of federal benefits provided for in Obamacare.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a critic of the bill, said he was doubtful that any enforcement mechanisms included in the bill would be honored by the Obama administration.
“We have laws today that are utterly ignored, and I have no confidence that this administration, based on what we’ve seen, will ever enforce any law,” Sessions said.
The committee will hold a second hearing on the bill Monday and is expected to pass the legislation in May. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is expected to quickly bring it to the floor for a vote, but it’s too early to determine if the Senate will pass the measure. House Republican leaders have already signaled it stands little chance of passing the House.