Napolitano: Immigration Bill Would Enhance National Security

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday as it continued discussion of the new, bipartisan immigration overhaul. She defended her department's procedures for screening immigrants in the wake of the Boston marathon bombings.

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This hour begins with perspectives on the Boston bombings from the U.S. and from the Dagestan region of Russia, where the suspects' parents live. First, to Capitol Hill.

Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security secretary, gave her testimony, her first testimony since her agency and others tracked down the two Tsarnaev brothers, both legal immigrants. She was appearing at a Senate committee's third hearing on a sweeping immigration overhaul. And as NPR's David Welna reports, the session was permeated by the events in Boston.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: And he addressed the woman in charge of the nation's domestic security, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy noted that Janet Napolitano would be the Cabinet member most involved in implementing the new immigration bill, and the time for considering that bill, Leahy said, is now.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: I do not believe the Boston bombing is the reason to stop progress or the consideration of this legislation. I trust our law enforcement people to be able to handle that case, and our courts are the best in the world. They'll - I have no worry about that.

WELNA: Still, Napolitano did not set Boston aside for the day. In her opening statement, she called the response to the bombing swift and effective and added that, in many ways, the close collaboration among law enforcement agencies there serves as a model for the future.

SECRETARY JANET NAPOLITANO: And I know all of us here are committed to finding out why this happened, what more we can do to prevent attacks like this in the future and making sure those responsible for this unconscionable act of terror face justice.

WELNA: Like other supporters of the immigration bill, Napolitano sought to use what happened in Boston to spur a revamping of the nation's immigration rules. She said law enforcement efforts are strengthened by the bill's offer of a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants.

NAPOLITANO: Knowing who they are is critical to public safety. Indeed, as we just saw in Boston, information from our legal immigration system often supports response and investigation.

WELNA: But what happened in Boston also prompted questions from the immigration bill's critics. Charles Grassley, the panel's top Republican, pressed Napolitano about a six-month trip the older and now deceased suspected bomber had taken.

SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY: Was your department aware of his travels to Russia, and if you weren't, the reason?

NAPOLITANO: The travel in 2012 that you're referring to. Yes, the system pinged when he was leaving the United States.

WELNA: And as New York Democrat and bill co-author Charles Schumer noted, the older Tsarnaev brother's travels might not have been so hard to track for other U.S. agencies had the new immigration bill been law.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: They had no record of him going to Russia or coming back because his name was misspelled by Aeroflot, where we don't have regulations, it being a foreign airline. Under our bill, everything would have to be passport- or machine-read so that type of mistake could not occur.

WELNA: Another of the bill's co-sponsors, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, told Napolitano that the surviving suspected bomber should be interrogated without a lawyer.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: I would like to talk to him more about this case, how this man left, where he went. And when we say there was no broader plot here, I just don't know how in the world we know that at this early stage.

WELNA: Napolitano promised a classified briefing on Boston for the entire Senate on Thursday. All threads in a very active investigation, she added, are being pulled. Before she left, bill co-sponsor and Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin wanted to leave one thing clear.

SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN: Do you believe that the passage of this immigration reform bill will make America safer and more secure?

NAPOLITANO: Yes, absolutely.

WELNA: It was a day when the bill's supporters seized the issue of national security raised by the Boston bombings from opponents and made it their own. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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