After months of heated negotiations, a bipartisan group of eight senators finally achieved compromise, coming together to unveil a broad overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws. Even yet, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the legislation Monday, a new set of divisions began to emerge, offering an early glimpse at the partisan politics likely to be on display as the immigration bill winds its way through the Senate.
At the marathon session, which featured testimony from 23 people, both lawmakers and witnesses raised charged questions. Could an immigration overhaul be done in separate pieces, without including a path to citizenship? What protections, if any, do same-sex couples deserve? How should the Boston bombings affect the immigration debate? The tempers of legislators flared, and at one point the hearing needed to be gaveled back to order.
According to a recent NY Times article, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and the chair of the committee, took issue with conservative commentators and Republican lawmakers who suggested that any debate about an immigration overhaul should take into account that the two suspects in the Boston bombing emigrated to the United States from Kyrgyzstan.
“Last week, opponents of comprehensive immigration reform began to exploit the Boston Marathon bombing,” Mr. Leahy said. “Let no one be so cruel as to try to use the heinous acts of these two young men last week to derail the dreams and futures of millions of hardworking people.”
At the committee’s first hearing to review the new legislation on Friday, Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the committee, said that immigration changes should be done carefully, “Particularly in light of all that’s happening in Massachusetts right now and over the last week.”
(On Monday, Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, seemed to underscore the concerns of some Republicans when he sent a letter to Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, arguing that considering the Boston bombings, “we should not proceed until we understand the specific failures of our immigration system.”)
The mood quickly turned tense when Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York and a member of the bipartisan group that drafted the new legislation, seemed to criticize his fellow senators, who, he said, “are pointing to what happened, the terrible tragedy in Boston, as, I would say, an excuse for not doing a bill or delaying it many months or years.”
“I never said that!” said Mr. Grassley, raising his voice and leaning forward in his chair to look at Mr. Schumer. “I never said that!”
“I don’t mean you, Mr. Grassley,” Mr. Schumer said, as Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, accused Mr. Schumer of “demeaning the witnesses,” and Mr. Leahy banged his gavel to restore order in the hearing room.
The two brothers suspected of perpetrating the bombings came to the United States through the existing legal immigration system, under a 2002 asylum petition by their father, who said he was worried about his safety because of his activities in Chechnya. One of the brothers had become a naturalized citizen, and the other was here legally on a visa, though his citizenship was still under review after a routine background check revealed that he had been interviewed by the F.B.I. in 2011.
Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, touched on another sensitive point when he suggested that instead of passing a broad bill, the Senate should take a piecemeal approach, focusing on areas “where there is wide bipartisan agreement.”
“I don’t think that there is any issue in this entire debate that is more divisive than a path to citizenship for those who are here illegally,” he said. “In my view, any bill that insists upon that jeopardizes the likelihood of passing any immigration reform bill.” Several Republican members of the bipartisan group have explicitly said that adding such protections would doom the legislation.
Though the bipartisan group has insisted that any legislation must be comprehensive — Democrats, in particular, fear that they would not be able to secure support for a path to citizenship if lawmakers were allowed to vote on that issue separately — Mr. Cruz seemed to echo some House Republicans, who have suggested breaking the bill up into smaller parts and focusing on its less controversial components.
“After something like that happens, they should stop all visas, for crying out loud,” said Ms. Kontis, 58, a Bostonion who owns New Wayne Pizza with her husband, Alex. “It’s insane. It just angers me.”
Ms. Kontis was born in Greece and immigrated to the United States as a child, but when two men of Chechen heritage were identified as the suspects in the fatal Boston Marathon bombings, her usually broad views about immigration became colored by concerns for national security.
“That is who’s coming in,” she said. “We don’t know what kind of people they are. The bottom line is we have to stop being goody-goody Americans.”
As a national debate over major immigration reform begins in Congress, some opponents are pointing to the Boston bombings as cause for concern about expanding visa programs and offering millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
On Friday, Senator Charles E. Grassley, a senior Iowa Republican on the committee debating the plan, which is proposed by a bipartisan group of eight senators, said the terrorist bombings should figure into the debate. Some conservative commentators and Congressional Republicans want to shift the focus away from economic and humanitarian concerns to border security and the potential threat from terrorists entering the country.
How successful their efforts turn out to be, and whether Boston slows momentum for change, could depend on how many citizens express views like Ms. Kontis’s.
Judging by a sampling of voters in one politically divided region, the western suburbs of Philadelphia, the Boston bombings may be an imperfect test case for opponents of reform.
In interviews Friday night, as the denouement of the manhunt played out in the hours when people gathered in taverns or strolled the streets on a pleasant evening, many mentioned that the two brothers linked to the attacks — Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, 19, who was captured Friday, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who was killed earlier — had arrived in the country a decade earlier, with a father who claimed asylum because of the conflict in their homeland. They could hardly have been identified by more vigilant border control, people said.
“You can’t stop people who came into the U.S. who 10 years later do bad things,” said Andrew Factor, 26, an investment adviser who stopped outside his office on the main street here. “We’re supposed to screen for terrorists when kids are 9 and 16?”
Nonetheless, the details of the Tsarnaev family’s odyssey may become lost in a larger debate over immigration policy, an issue that evokes heated reactions. Two Republican senators favoring reform, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, warned Friday of bringing Boston into the debate and insisted an overhaul would tighten security “by helping us identify exactly who has entered our country and who has left.”
Of course, that message was not always embraced. “I’m a little more of an extremist now after what happened in Boston,” said Greg Ricker, 41, a stockbroker, as he stepped outside the Flying Pig Saloon in Malvern for a cigarette. “I think we should just stop letting people in,” according to the NY Times.
Like nearby Wayne, Malvern is part of a suburban belt that has grown more Democratic in recent elections. Attitudes toward immigration reform seem to be changing, in part along generational lines. Frank Cunningham, a 27-year-old accountant, said that he, unlike his father, favors a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
“The way I was raised, my dad says, ‘If you come into the country illegally, you don’t deserve to be here,’ ” Mr. Cunningham said. “But I’m wondering who is going to do those jobs?”
Gary Burnett, 35, said he favored a path to citizenship and expanded permanent-resident visas for those waiting outside the country, because the nation is already part of a global economy.
As a software engineer, he said, “I compete with the entire world already. I have to be able to do the work of at least three people in Asia to compete.”
He thought the potential that some immigrants might turn out to be terrorists was a red herring.
Melvin Cook, 57, who was buying a pizza, went further. He accused politicians of exploiting the Boston bombing. “They’re trying to put fear into us of immigrants,” he said. Mr. Cook, a truck driver, said of illegal immigrants, “The jobs they’re getting, nobody wants.”
Amen. The Republicans must remember that had they not alienated Latino voters, Romney would be President today. Can they afford to shoot themselves in the foot again, this time over long overdue Comprehensive Immigration Reform?