The usual xenophobic suspects made the usual noises after the tragic events in Boston last week. Perhaps the most premature outcry came from electrified-border-fence proponent, Rep. Steve King, Republican from Iowa, who a day after the marathon explosions linked a report (ultimately untrue) that a Saudi national had planted the bombs with King’s mission to stop comprehensive immigration reform (CIR):
We need to be ever vigilant. We need to go far deeper into our border crossings. . . . We need to take a look at the visa-waiver program and wonder what we’re doing. If we can’t background-check people that are coming from Saudi Arabia, how do we think we are going to background check the 11 to 20 million people that are here from who knows where?
Another occurred on Reddit, where an amateur sleuth named Pizzaman along with multiple Reddit contributors noted the similarity to the photos of Suspect #2 (Dzhokhar Tsarnaev) and a missing Brown University student of Indian descent, Sunil Tripathi, whose whereabouts, sadly, remain unknown. (Reddit’s moderator has since apologized for this misinformation disaster to the Tripathi family (who are as American as you and I.)
Still another erupted, quite expectedly, from one of Ann Coulter’s Twitter posts after the death of Suspect #1 (Tamerlan Tsarnaev) in which she mocked G8 member, Sen. Marco Rubio: “It’s too bad Suspect # 1 won’t be able to be legalized by Marco Rubio, now.”
Similarly, long-time jingoist, Pat Buchanan suggested three days after the bombing that the focus should only be on border security. Apparently forgetting that the Brothers Tsarnaev entered the U.S. legally, with the older having become a permanent resident and the younger a citizen, Buchanan slammed undocumented immigrants who aspire to become Americans:
Why do you have to do anything? What is this nonsense that ‘they’re in the shadows’? With due respect, they ought to be in the shadows! They’ve broken the law to get into the country…. Do nothing!… You [the Republican party] don’t have [to] bribe, you don’t have to give up your principled positions… in order to get Barack Obama to do his duty and defend the border!
Fortunately, CIR proponents on the right and left in Congress and elsewhere gave forth with rapid responses:
- Republican point man on immigration in the House, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, disagreed with Sen. Grassley: “[E]very crime that is committed right now is under the current immigration system. So what does that lead me to believe? We need to fix the current immigration system, if in fact there is any connection between immigration at all.”
- A spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio (R. FL) issued this statement: “There are legitimate policy questions to ask and answer about what role our immigration system played, if any, in what happened . . . Regardless of the circumstances in Boston, immigration reform that strengthens our borders and gives us a better accounting of who is in our country and why will improve our national security. Americans will reject any attempt to tie the losers responsible for the attacks in Boston with the millions of law-abiding immigrants currently living in the US and those hoping to immigrate here in the future.”
- Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham released a joint statement: “Some have already suggested that the circumstances of this terrible tragedy are justification for delaying or stopping entirely the effort. . . In fact, the opposite is true: Immigration reform will strengthen our nation’s security by helping us identify exactly who has entered our country and who has left.”
- Democrats, Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin, also rejected the flawed reasoning which would link CIR to the bombings. Sen. Schumer warned against the temptation to ““jump to conclusions” and “conflate” the Boston tragedy with immigration reform. Sen. Durbin noted that CIR would enhance our security: “[E]veryone, the 11 million people who were basically living in the shadows in America, [has] to come forward, register with the government, go through a criminal background check. That will make us safer.” I made the same point when the Christmas-time underwear bomber succeeded in nothing more than scorching his private parts. See “Using Immigration to Stem the Terror Threat,” (Dec. 30, 2009).
- The New York Times Editorial Board observed that CIR’s opponents are desperate and that CIR would make finding wrongdoers easier: “Until the bombing came along, the antis were running out of arguments. They cannot rail against ‘illegals,’ since the bill is all about making things legal and upright, with registration, fines and fees. They cannot argue seriously that reform is bad for business: turning a shadow population of anonymous, underpaid laborers into on-the-books employees and taxpayers, with papers and workplace protections, will only help the economy grow. About all they have left is scary aliens. . . .There is a better way to be safer: pass an immigration bill. If terrorists, drug traffickers and gangbangers are sharp needles in the immigrant haystack, then shrink the haystack. Get 11 million people on the books. Find out who they are.”
- Matthew Iglesias of Slate suggested seemingly counterintuitive but spot-on points that doing nothing will only encourage illegal immigration and let more terrorists and killers in and that the proposed 20,000-to-200,000 W visas for lesser-skilled workers likewise may be insufficient to stem illegal border crossings — the precise point I made on April 18 to Abigail Rubenstein of Law360 Employment (“[That] the U.S. Chamber and the AFL-CIO reached a consensus on a lesser-skilled worker visa is wonderful, but the numbers make the program illusory”).
- The General Counsel of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, David Leopold, persuasively explained, in essence, that immigration adjudicators are not soothsayers and that no one can foresee how an immigrant’s life will turn, as reported in The Atlantic: “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.'”
Despite CIR proponents’ quick retorts, the Boston bombings will likely make enactment all the more difficult. Unlike an esteemed colleague who predicts a less than 50% chance, I’m still optimistic that CIR will be enacted. If anything, Boston made the price of doing nothing simply too high. Still, with background checks on gun sales a non-starter in the Senate despite 90% support among the American people, nothing can be taken for granted.
Here’s what CIR’s proponents must do now:
- Urge the Senate to adjust the balance of funding in the Senate proposal, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act’’ (or, “BESSIE MAE,” as a prominent immigration editor has dubbed it) between border security (proposed at an overly generous and likely somewhat wasteful $6.5 billion) and the measly, wholly inadequate amount ($10 million) authorized for the integration of immigrants into American society. Whenever a refugee or any other immigrant comes to America, we want to provide the environment to prosper like Google founder Sergey Brin, a refugee from the Soviet Union, and not turn sociopathic as apparently happened with bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Meantime, until CIR is passed, kudos to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for its recently announced Citizenship and Integration Grant Program, which will offer almost $10 million in funding during the grant period.
- Remind Republicans that the November 2012 election was a watershed. Republicans will continue to be the party of old white men, unless they take the politically smart and courageous act to pass CIR. Doing nothing is not an option if the GOP is to survive.
- Humanize the immigration debate. Point out that among those killed in the bombings was Lu Lingzi, an only child and Boston University graduate student majoring in Mathematics and Statistics — precisely the type of STEM student we want here — whose death her father described as like a “dagger in our hearts.”
- Point to history. We didn’t stop immigration after the Puritans (themselves religious refugees) conducted their deadly Salem Witch Trials. Indeed, had America closed the door to English refugees, there’d be far fewer Anglos who oppose CIR.
- Make the point that Bostonians and the police got it right. Show that the post-bombing resilient spirit of Boston, and the close collaboration of federal and state law enforcement personnel (who cooperated superbly in speedily identifying and neutralizing the suspects), demonstrate that we’ve grown up as a country and a government since 9/11. No virulent backlash against foreigners has sprung up since Monday’s bombing, save for the vicious hate spewing from a few, notably, Fox News contributor Erik Rush, who tweeted “Let’s kill all of them (Muslims)” and then backed down quickly after he was confronted, claiming that he was merely engaging in sarcasm. Here, unlike 9/11 there was no inter-agency withholding of information and no governmental failure to connect the dots. Indeed, the immigration system, insofar as it was involved, worked, given that USCIS held off on the naturalization application of Tamerlan Tsarnaev based on information derived from the FBI’s investigation into his background.
- Make sure that CIR clearly puts the burden on the immigration agencies to publish implementing regulations on strict deadlines or face a loss of funding, and that Congress conducts regular public oversight hearings after enactment during the implementation phase. If the events of last week proved anything — no, not the bombing, but rather the Texas fertilizer plant explosion that killed at least 14 people — it is that government agencies must be held accountable and be funded properly (see my first bullet above about rational allocation of immigration budgets). User fee funding as the primary financial source for CIR implementation, which the G8s’ proposal envisions, simply won’t do.
The last time America was hit on its soil — September 11, 2001 — a different, far more modest immigration reform, known as Section 245(i), fell victim to the understandable Congressional blowback, even though that provision would have helped numerous undocumented immigrants who had nothing to do with terrorism. Well that was then. This time it’s different. America has matured. CIR will pass, unless its supporters fail at the ground game of persuasively mobilizing public opinion and holding our legislators’ feet to the fire. Let’s not get all weak-kneed and wobbly when vigilance and community organizing like never before is what’s required. And we should recognize that eight-year-old bombing victim, Martin Richards, could just as well have been describing why we need immigration reform when he wrote these words on his poster: “Let’s stop hurting people. Peace.”