Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano mounted a full-throated defense of a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, as lawmakers pressed to find what, if any, role immigration laws played in last week’s Boston Marathon bombing.
The attack, which was carried out by two brothers who immigrated to the United States as children, has become a sticking point for a handful of conservatives opposed to moving the bill forward through the legislative process. The first 90 minutes of the hearing included several references to Boston as well as other terrorist attacks.
“The tragic events that occurred in Boston and the potential terrorist attacks of the US-Canadian railroad are reminders that our immigration system is directly related to our sovereignty and national security matters,” said ranking member Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on Tuesday. “We know that the 9/11 hijackers abused our immigration system by overstaying their student visas. We also know that people enter legally and stay below the radar.”
Grassley went on to highlight some immigration failures in the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the deceased 26-year-old Boston bombing suspect, whose name was misspelled on a list of passengers flying to Russia in January 2012, according to an official who spoke with the Associated Press. The new immigration system would only perpetuate similar types of errors, argued Grassley.
“It has been reported that the older Boston bomber traveled to Russia, and his name was misspelled on his airline ticket,” said Grassley. “If this bill were to pass as is, we will continue to rely on airline personnel to properly type a name into a computer, and not on biometrics identifiers.”
Napolitano conceded that “there was a mismatch” with Tsnarnaev’s plane ticket, but that the system did still “ping,” alerting U.S. authorities to his departure. The reason the system did not ping upon Tsnarnaev’s return, she said, was because “the FBI text alert on him at that point was more than a year old and had expired.” Napolitano added that the new bill would safeguard against similar mistakes. “By the way, the bill will help with this because it requires that passports be electronically readable as opposed to having to be manually input,” she said. “It really does a good job of getting human error, to the extent that it exists, out of the process.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who first spoke about the spelling SNAFU on Monday, continued to press Napolitano about the error, and argued that the Boston attack could still be tied to a larger terrorist plot. “I would like to talk to you more about this case—how this man left, where he went,” said Graham. “And when we say there was not a broader plot here, I just don’t know how in the world we know that at this early stage.”
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old suspect behind the bombings, told the FBI Tuesday that he and his brother acted alone. An investigation into the brothers’ cell phones and computers led law enforcement officials to believe that “nobody else was involved” in the explosions that left three people dead and more than 200 injured last Monday.
In her opening statement, Secretary Napolitano noted her commitment to uncovering the intelligence failure that led to last week’s attack, and making sure that it never happens again. Immigration reform, she argued, would be critical to protecting Americans, not detrimental to it.
“All of us here are committed to finding out why this happened, what more we can do to prevent attacks like this in the future, and making sure those responsible for this unconscionable act of terror face justice,” said Napolitano. “Knowing who they are is critical to public safety,” she said of the roughly 11 million immigrants currently living in the U.S. illegally. “Indeed, as we just saw in Boston, information from our legal immigration system often supports response and investigation.”