Hoyer: Boston terror bombings not relevant to immigration reform debate

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said last week’s Boston Marathon bombings should have no impact on the congressional push to overhaul the nation's immigration system.

"I don't think the bombing has relevance to the immigration issue, and I think those that try to make some connection between the two are not right," Hoyer, the Democratic whip, told reporters in the Capitol.

Some powerful lawmakers are warning that the deadly attacks should prompt Congress to move more slowly on comprehensive immigration reform, as investigators dig into the motivations of the ethnic Chechen suspects.

But Hoyer rejected that notion, arguing that the incident might have "lessons" for Congress on national security efforts, but it shouldn't impede the immigration debate.

Hoyer noted that the bipartisan Senate package, unveiled earlier in the month, has the rare support of both big business and organized labor groups, and suggested Congress shouldn't allow the Boston tragedy to inhibit that momentum.

"There has been an understanding, I think, a consensus, [that] the immigration system is broken, it needs to be fixed," he said. "We need to address it in a comprehensive fashion. … And I would hope we would move ahead on that."

His remarks came one day after law enforcement officials charged 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with using a weapon of mass destruction in the twin Boston bombings. Three people were killed and more than 200 injured when pressure cookers packed with shrapnel detonated last Monday near the finish line of the city's celebrated marathon.

Tsarnaev and his brother, 26-year-old Tamerlan, had lived in the United States for years. The younger Tsarnaev, who's recovering from gunshot wounds in a Boston hospital, is a naturalized U.S. citizen. The elder brother, who died after a shootout with police early Friday morning, was a permanent legal resident in line for his citizenship.

Investigators are now trying to determine whether an extended trip Tamerlan Tsarnaev took last year to Russia's volatile Caucuses region is related to the attacks.

Testifying before a Senate panel Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the elder brother was on the administration's radar as he left the U.S., but not when he returned.

“Yes, the system pinged when he was leaving the United States," Napolitano told lawmakers. "By the time he returned, all investigations — the matter had been closed."

Supporters of the Senate's bipartisan immigration reform package say their bill would prevent homeland attacks by closing gaps like the one that allowed Tamerlan Tsarnaev to avoid detection leading up to his alleged crimes.

But others – notably Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) – have said the Boston attacks should force Congress to slow its approach to immigration reform this year.

"The protestations of the sponsors of this bill, that we’re going to be a lot safer if the new bill is passed, I think is incorrect," Sessions told Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host, last Friday.

Hoyer disagreed, arguing that the Boston tragedy is yet another reason for Congress not to miss a rare opportunity to fix a system that all sides agree is broken.

"This incident has no relevance to [the immigration debate] except to the extent – limited extent – that … security is an issue, protecting our borders," he said Tuesday.

"If we can learn some lessons in terms of … [looking] at people for visas, for entry into the United States … that's fine," he added. "But I don't think it has any relevance as it relates to the immigration reform that is critically necessary for our economy, for the welfare of our people, and I think that will be a consensus."