The news that the Boston Marathon bombing suspects are brothers who came with relatives from the Russian region near Chechnya – possibly as refugees – could overlay the immigration reform debate, experts on both sides of the issue said.
The emotionally-charged, divisive topic of immigration, to be sure, can suddenly change direction on mere speculation, they said.
Earlier this week, when reports incorrectly identified a Saudi college student as a suspect, proponents of strict immigration laws said those reports, though murky, were reason enough to rethink comprehensive immigration reform, particularly the part of it that calls for a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants.
Pili Tobar, press secretary for America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group in Washington D.C., said proponents of more lenient immigration policies are deeply concerned about the link that some conservatives have made between the Boston bombing, which killed three and injured roughly 180, and immigration.
On Friday, many advocacy organizations were conferring on how to handle the possible implications of the brothers’ immigration situation and how it could affect the current effort to reform immigration.
This is no time to single out immigrants or blame any ethnic or religious group. It is a time to come together as a nation and stand with the people of Boston.
- Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice Education Fund
“The facts on the ground in Boston are very fluid," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice Education Fund. "It’s premature to jump to final conclusions about the attackers. And it’s shameful that some on the far right are politicizing this issue. 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."
“This is no time to single out immigrants or blame any ethnic or religious group," Sharry said. "It is a time to come together as a nation and stand with the people of Boston.”
The brothers’ father, Anzor Tsarnaev, spoke with The Associated Press by telephone from the Russian city of Makhachkala on Friday after police said one of his sons, 26-year-old Tamerlan, had been killed in a shootout near Cambridge, Mass. and the other, Dzhokhar, was being intensely pursued.
"My son is a true angel," the elder Tsarnaev said. "Dzhokhar is a second-year medical student in the U.S. He is such an intelligent boy. We expected him to come on holidays here."
Bryan J. Fisher, a conservative radio host, said on Twitter Friday morning that the pathway to legalization “is DOA.”
“Time to tighten, not loosen, immigration policy,” Fisher tweeted.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors strict immigration enforcement, said the Tsarnaev brothers’ immigration status may not have “direct” impact on the effort to overhaul the system, but it will likely have some effect.
“If they were resettled as refugees, we don’t know if that was done in the legal sense, we don’t know if they were in fear in Chechnya and fled.”
But their immigration history should raise some points, Krikorian said.
“What it shows is that immigration security is not divisible, that is, you can’t pick and choose what countries or group you’re going to pay lots of attention to. You can’t say, ‘We going to worry about people from Saudi Arabia, but not Russia.’”
The split in the Republican Party, particularly among conservatives, grew sharper this week as some urged using the Boston bombing as a cautionary tale about the immigration system, and others, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, said doing so was irresponsible.
The brothers are believed to have come as long as 10 years ago, when they were minors, and could have developed extremist views here, experts say. In that case, immigration checks and balances would not have prevented their alleged actions.
"Herman Cain's 2,000-mile electrified fence would not keep them out," Krikorian said. "That's not to say there shouldn't be more fence, but it wouldn't have stopped this."
Bipartisan Senate immigration legislation filed this week attempts to balance a focus on border security and legal enforcement sought by Republicans in the group with Democratic priorities like making citizenship widely accessible. Crafting the bill was a time-consuming process of seeking compromise and bringing together traditionally opposed groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, the United Farm Workers and the American Farm Bureau Federation.
But even harder work lies ahead now that legislative language will become public for other lawmakers and groups on all sides to examine and react to. The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding hearings Friday and Monday and is likely move to amend and vote on it in May, with action on the Senate floor expected later in the summer.
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente