By David Nakamura
April 22, 2013
A leading Democratic senator accused Republicans on Monday of trying to “exploit” the Boston Marathon bombings for political gain to slow down an effort to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, opened a committee hearing on an 844-page immigration reform proposal by chastising his GOP colleagues for tying the bombings to the comprehensive bill authored by an eight-member bipartisan group.
“Last week, opponents began to exploit the Boston Marathon bombing,” Leahy said, referring to the fact that the two suspects were members of an ethnic Chechen family that received asylum under U.S. immigration laws in 2002. “I urge restraint in that regard. Refugees and asylum-seekers have enriched the fabric of this country from our founding. . . . Let no one be so cruel as to use these heinous acts of two young men last week to derail the dreams and futures of millions of hardworking people.”
Leahy did not specifically cite Republicans, but his remarks drew a stern rebuke from the man seated to his right, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the leading Republican on the committee.
Grassley was one of several GOP lawmakers who urged caution on immigration reform in the aftermath of the bombing, arguing that Democrats were rushing the process and that more time was needed to scrutinize the bill and ensure that it will improve border security. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) sent a letter to Leahy on Monday citing the Boston bombings to argue that “we should not proceed until we understand the specific failures of our immigration system.” He asked why the suspects’ family was allowed to remain in the United States after coming from a part of Russia that Paul called “an area known as the hotbed of Islamic extremism.”
“If you want to avoid partisanship, let’s be very deliberate,” Grassley said, looking at Leahy. Then Grassley compared his reaction to the response from Democrats who called for increased gun control laws in the wake of the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December.
“When you proposed gun legislation, we did not accuse you of using the Newtown killings as an excuse,” Grassley said. “I think we’re taking advantage of an opportunity when once in 25 years we deal with immigration to make sure every base is covered.”
Later in the hearing, there were more fireworks when Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the co-authors of the bill, told colleagues that it was unfair for “those pointing to the terrible tragedy in Boston” to use the bombings “as an excuse to wait many months or years.”
Grassley cut him off by responding loudly, “I never said that!”
Leahy banged his gavel twice to restore order as other senators chimed in. Schumer resumed his remarks by assuring Grassley that he was not speaking specifically of any of the lawmakers in the room.
The Senate committee hearing was the second for the immigration bill; the first hearing last Friday was disrupted by the news that the bombing suspects had been identified and authorities were pursuing one of them in a manhunt that shut down large portions of Boston and neighboring jurisdictions.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, scheduled to testify on immigration and border control Friday, canceled her appearance. Leahy announced that she will testify in front of the committee Tuesday.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the bipartisan group that produced the bill, said in a statement Monday afternoon that he disagreed with those who argued that the Boston bombings have no bearing on the immigration debate, and he called for more time to deliberate on the legislation.
“If there are flaws in our immigration system that were exposed by the attack in Boston, any immigration reform passed by Congress this year should address those flaws,” Rubio said. “Congress needs time to conduct more hearings and investigate how our immigration and national security systems could be improved going forward. The attack reinforces why immigration reform should be a lengthy, open and transparent process, so that we can ask and answer important questions surrounding every facet of the bill. But we still have a broken system that needs to be fixed.”
Dozens of immigration advocates lined up outside the hearing room Monday, wearing T-shirts reading “Protect the Path” and “Keep Families Together.” The immigration bill features a 13-year path to citizenship for most of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants; increased funding for new border surveillance drones, fencing and customs agents; new visa programs for low- and highly skilled workers; and a reduction in visas for extended family members trying to be reunited with relatives in the United States.
Senators were due to hear from 23 witnesses on four panels Monday, and aides said the hearing was likely to last all day. Leahy had scheduled just two hearings on the bill, but Napolitano’s appearance Tuesday will add to that. Republicans are pressing for additional opportunities to gather information and question experts and proponents.
Leahy has said he hopes to open the bill for amendments in early May and potentially send it to the full Senate by early June. President Obama has said he hopes to sign a comprehensive immigration bill into law by the end of the year.