Boston Bombings Overshadow Immigration Bill Hearing

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Senators on the Judiciary Committee continued discussion of a bipartisan immigration overhaul Monday, as opponents of the plan began focusing on the Boston bombers and their immigration history. David Welna talks to Robert Siegel.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

A massive new immigration bill was the subject of a daylong hearing today by the Senate Judiciary Committee. More than 20 witnesses testified before the panel, either to applaud the bipartisan legislation or to question it. But overshadowing the event was the bombing of Boston's marathon one week ago, with two suspects who immigrated to the U.S. as refugees a decade ago.

Joining me from the Capitol to talk about today's hearing is NPR congressional correspondent David Welna.

David, this was the second day of hearings on the immigration bill that the Gang of Eight, as it's called, rolled out last week. On Friday and today, the Boston bombings, very much on the minds of everyone, including the senators holding the hearings. How did that play out today?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Robert, this is something that's been building up ever since Friday's hearing when Chuck Grassley, who's the top Republican on the Judiciary panel - and something of a skeptic about this immigration bill - first raised questions about how the case of these two brothers might shed light on weaknesses in the immigration system. Democrats reacted to that over the weekend, saying opponents of the bill were trying to torpedo it by using the outrage over the Boston bombings.

And today, these rising tensions sort of exploded between Grassley and New York Democrat Charles Schumer, after Schumer stated at the hearing that the American people overwhelmingly favor immigration reform and that they won't be satisfied with calls to for delays and impediments to the bill.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: I say that particularly to those who are pointing to what happened, the terrible tragedy in Boston, as a - I would say excuse for not doing a bill or delaying it many months or years.

SENATOR CHUCK GRASSLEY: I never said that.

SCHUMER: I didn't say you did.

GRASSLEY: I never said that.

SCHUMER: I didn't say you did, sir.


GRASSLEY: I didn't say anything about the bill.

SCHUMER: I didn't say - I don't mean you, Mr. Grassley.

SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, I don't appreciate the senator demeaning the witnesses that have come here.


WELNA: That last voice was Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, who joined Grassley in responding to Schumer. Things calmed down, though, and everyone at the hearing, in fact, later observed a minute of silence in honor of those killed and injured a week ago in Boston.

SIEGEL: Well, beyond that very uncivil behavior, was there any serious discussion of how the Boston bombings relate to the new immigration bill?

WELNA: There was and it was primarily instigated by a couple of witnesses who are quite critical of this bill's promise of a path to citizenship for some 11 million unauthorized immigrants. One of them was Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. And he asked how was it the Tsarnaev brothers got asylum in the U.S., since their parents wanted asylum from Russia and yet both of them have moved back there?

And he and Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach both questioned how reliable background checks for the 11 million illicit immigrants wanting citizenship might be, since the older Tsarnaev brother - the one who's dead - had two background checks done and an interview with the FBI on concerns about possible terrorist ties; and yet, he was still allowed to travel to Russia and back.

South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who is a co-author of the immigration bill, replied that if Boston teaches us anything, it's that the nation needs to be more aware of who's living in its midst.

SIEGEL: David, just briefly, it's a massive bill - 850 pages long - what parts were addressed today in the hearing?

WELNA: Well, today, most of the discussion was about changes in legal immigration which would shift the priorities for granting visas more towards filling the needs of the labor market for both high- and low-skilled workers. These are very complicated issues and I expect we'll be hearing a lot more about them in the coming weeks, as this bill gets amended in the committee before the full Senate takes it up, most likely in June.

SIEGEL: Thank you, David.

WELNA: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's David Welna on Capitol Hill.

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