Will Marathon Bombings Derail Immigration Reform?

Jewish Activists Redouble Push — and Press for Asylum Rule

Shifting Debate: Jewish activists join demonstration in Washington for immigration reform. Has the Boston bombing left an indelible mark on the debate?
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Shifting Debate: Jewish activists join demonstration in Washington for immigration reform. Has the Boston bombing left an indelible mark on the debate?

By Nathan Guttman

Published April 25, 2013, issue of May 03, 2013.
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Jewish activists are worried that shock waves from the Boston Marathon terrorist attack could delay Congressional action on a long-sought immigration reform package — and endanger a provision on asylum.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has been urging lawmakers to include a provision in the reform legislation that would extend filing deadlines for immigrants seeking political asylum in the United States. But the group’s task may be complicated by the emergence of two ethnic Chechen brothers as terrorist suspects who were first admitted into the country as part of a family of political asylum seekers.

“Of course, HIAS is worried that immigration restrictionists have already started to exploit the Boston tragedy in a manipulative effort to thwart immigration as well as asylum reform,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the leading Jewish advocacy group for immigrants.

Hetfield countered that among the 11 million undocumented immigrants are refugees who missed the asylum filing deadline, and that comprehensive immigration reform would “bring them out of the shadows” and make America more secure.

Currently, visitors who arrive here and decide to seek asylum as political refugees must apply for this status within 12 months. HIAS argues that individuals fleeing persecution should be allowed a longer period of time to file for asylum before being deported to the countries from which they fled.

It is a small detail in a massive set of rules and procedures offered in the reform, but dealing with any asylum issue in the post-Boston environment has become somewhat more difficult.

The Tsarnaev brothers, suspected of carrying out the April 15 attacks, entered America on an asylum visa after their parents convinced authorities that as Muslim Chechens they would face persecution from the Russian authorities. Critics, including Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul, have tied the Tsarnaevs’ entry into the United States as asylum seekers to the broader question of immigration reform.

“Why did the current system allow two individuals to immigrate to the United States from the Chechen Republic in Russia – an area known as a hotbed of Islamic extremism — who then committed acts of terrorism?” Paul asked in an April 22 Senate hearing.

Paul’s question rests on assumptions that are arguably inaccurate or lacking in context. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were granted asylum as young children in 2002 based on the government’s approval of their parents’ request. There has been no indication that their parents — the asylum applicants — harbored any extremist sympathies. Nevertheless, the discussion has raised questions about the asylum process.


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