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Conservatives seize on Boston bombings to slow immigration reform

For months, conservative opponents of immigration reform have been looking for ways to slow down the process—with little success.
Demonstrators protest during an immigration reform rally in front of the U.S. Capitol on Capitol Hill in Washington in this October 13, 2009 file photo.
Demonstrators protest during an immigration reform rally in front of Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.

For months, conservative opponents of immigration reform have been looking for ways to slow down the process—with little success. But with two ethnic Chechen immigrants the suspects in last week’s Boston Marathon bombings, they may finally have given them an opening.

The suspected bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, came to the U.S. legally as minors in 2002 and their family was later granted asylum status. In 2012, Dzhokhar, 19, became a U.S. citizen. Tamerlan was killed in a shootout with police early Friday morning. Dzhokhar was arrested Friday evening.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, seized on the bombings as a reason to go slow at the first hearing for the comprehensive bipartisan immigration reform bill introduced in the Senate last week.

“Given the events of this week, it’s important for us to understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system,” Grassley said Friday in his opening statement.

Sen. Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, echoed that go-slow approach in an appearance Sunday on ABC News. “I’m afraid we’ll rush to some judgments relative to immigration and how it’s processed,” said Coats. "So let’s do it in a rational way rather than an emotional way.”

Conservative pundits have been blunter in using the bombings as an argument against immigration reform. “It’s too bad Suspect #1 won’t be able to be legalized by Marco Rubio, now,” Ann Coulter tweeted Friday.

The effort to tie the two issues led to a heated exchange at Monday's immigration hearing. "Those who point to the terrible tragedy in Boston as, I would say, an excuse for not doing a bill or delaying it many months or year—" said Sen. Chuck Schumer, before being interrupted by Grassley.

"I never said that!" shouted the Iowa senator. "I never said that!"

Schumer, a New York Democrat, is a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” that wrote the reform bill.

For conservative Republicans, opposing immigration reform has until lately been a delicate task. After President Obama captured more than 70%t of the Hispanic vote last fall, an official party post-mortem urged the GOP to get behind reform as a way to bolster their standing with Hispanics. And Sen. Marco Rubio, a rising GOP star and potential 2016 presidential contender, has helped lead the effort to draft legislation. All that has made it tricky to voice full-throated opposition to reform, and has given the push a sense of momentum. But those wary of reform appear to hope that the bombings will complicate the picture, making it harder to loosen immigration laws at a time when terrorism concerns are at the forefront of Americans’ minds.

Whether they’ll succeed is very much an open question. Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice Education Fund, a pro-reform group, pointed out that those pointing to the attacks as a reason to slow-roll immigration reform were against the effort even before the bombings.

“It’s shameful that some on the far right are politicizing and demagoguing this issue,” Sharry said in a statement released Friday. “It’s shameful, but not very surprising.  Those exploiting this tragedy in hopes of derailing immigration reform were opponents of reform long before this week.”

That Grassley, for one, has previously sought to appeal to hard-line opponents of reform is hard to argue with. According to the “Issues” section of his website, the senator “first and foremost is opposed to amnesty,” the negative term many opponents of reform use to refer to a path to citizenship for those who came here illegally.

Last year Coats denounced President Obama’s executive order that allowed young immigrants to apply for legal status, saying: “This new immigration policy effectively grants amnesty to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants.”

Pro-reform lawmakers have argued that far from being a reason to go slow, the bombings are one more reason why reform is urgent. “We’re not going to let them use what happened in Boston as an excuse because our law toughens things up,” Schumer said Sunday on CNN.

Another member of the Gang of Eight, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, went further. “Now is the time to bring all the 11 million out of the shadows and find out who they are,” Graham said on the same CNN show. “Most of them are here to work, but we may find some terrorists in our midst.”

Other supporters of reform have made the case that the bombings underline the need to make sure those born overseas feel fully accepted here. "If we have 11 or 12 million Americans living in the shadows, one of the things we ought to do is integrate them fully into American society," Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations said Monday on msnbc's Morning Joe. "So I did not think this was reason to slow down immigration legislation.  If anything … this is reason to accelerate."

The Gang of Eight’s proposal would beef up border security, and would also require the federal government to create a system to monitor immigrants who overstay their visas.