Boston bombing suspects enter into immigration debate

A powerful senator warned Friday that this week's Boston marathon bombings should give Congress pause as it attempts to overhaul the nation's immigration system.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, emphasized that it's too early to know whether the perpetrators of the bombings exploited gaps in immigration law to help stage their attacks. But with the chief suspects said to be ethnic Chechens raised in Kyrgyzstan who have lived in the United States for roughly a decade, he suggested their story could serve as a cautionary tale as lawmakers attempt to revamp the system.

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"Given the events of this week, it’s important for us to understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system," Grassley said in his opening statement of a Judiciary hearing on reform. "While we don’t yet know the immigration status of the people who have terrorized the communities in Massachusetts, when we find out, it will help shed light on the weaknesses of our system.

"How can individuals evade authorities and plan such attacks on our soil?" Grassley asked. "How can we beef up security checks on people who wish to enter the U.S.?  How do we ensure that people who wish to do us harm are not eligible for benefits under the immigration laws, including this new bill before us?"

Friday's Judiciary hearing — the first this year on the immigration reform issue that is one of President Obama's top second-term priorities — came as law enforcers had shut down much of Boston in an unprecedented search for one of the suspects in Monday's twin marathon bombings. The improvised devices killed three people and injured more than 170 when they detonated near the finish line more than four hours into the storied race.

One suspect, 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was killed by police Thursday night in a violent shootout that followed a high-speed chase and the killing of a university police officer. His brother, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, escaped the scene and remains on the run.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) warned Friday that area residents should “stay indoors with their doors locked” while the manhunt continues.

Although early reports linked the brothers to Chechen extremist groups, their uncle, who identified himself as Ruslan Tsarni, said Friday that his nephews immigrated to the United States from Kyrgyzstan around 2003. Tsarni, an ethnic Chechen, said the brothers are "losers" who have never been to Chechnya but nonetheless tarnished the image of the country by creating a public association between it and the marathon bombings.

The dramatic saga has unfolded amid a week when a bipartisan group of Senate lawmakers unveiled sweeping legislation to reform an immigration system that all sides of the debate agree is broken. The lawmakers are hoping their compromise bill is able to avoid the pitfalls of failed reform efforts of the past by striking the right balance between enhanced border security, favored by Republicans, and new immigrant protections, championed by Democrats.

They have a tough road ahead. Indeed, both Grassley and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary panel, expressed strong reservations about the Senate compromise package Friday.

"We’re off to a rough start," Grassley said, accusing Democrats of rushing the debate.

“I fear it does not live up to our values,” said Leahy, criticizing the length of time undocumented immigrants would have to wait to earn legal status.

Grassley is not alone among lawmakers connecting the bombings to the immigration debate. 

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), one of the Senate's so-called "Gang of Eight," said the threat of terrorism – highlighted by the Boston bombings – fits hand-in-glove with the immigration debate.

"It's the right question at the right time, because we're talking about what to do with foreigners in the United States or coming to the United States," Durbin told Bloomberg TV's "Political Capital with Al Hunt" program. "And it's put in the context, clearly, of our national security first."

Other members of the Gang of Eight weighed in. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) issued a joint statement:

“In the wake of this week’s terrorist attack in Boston, some have already suggested that the circumstances of this terrible tragedy are justification for delaying or stopping entirely the effort for comprehensive immigration reform. In fact the opposite is true: Immigration reform will strengthen our nation’s security by helping us identify exactly who has entered our country and who has left – a basic function of government that our broken immigration system is incapable of accomplishing today. The status quo is unacceptable."

The office Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), another lead negotiator of the Senate package, also weighed in Friday on a possible link. Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said the bombings present "legitimate policy questions ... about what role our immigration system played, if any, in what happened."

"Regardless of the circumstances in Boston, immigration reform that strengthens our borders and gives us a better accounting of who is in our country and why will improve our national security," Conant said.

The Senate Judiciary panel has another immigration hearing scheduled for Monday.

Last updated at 3:52 p.m.