President Obama seemed like a man ready to exhale after the surviving Boston Marathon bomber suspect was captured, but he shouldn’t breathe too easy. Going forward, the tragic episode and its timing have created at least three new areas of stress for his already beleaguered administration.
Immigration setback? The public rollout of comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform legislation the same week as the marathon bombings was timing at its most unfortunate. The misfortune was compounded by later news that the two suspects in the bombings, which killed three and injured more than 170, were Muslim brothers of Chechen heritage from an area of Russia near Chechnya.
It’s beyond obvious that there are millions of undocumented immigrants in this country who are working at jobs, maybe creating jobs, who are paying taxes or are prospective taxpayers making contributions to their adopted country. But immigration is an emotional issue, and reform opponents now have a perfect hook in the case of the Tsarnaev brothers -- Tamerlan, 26, a legal U.S. resident killed in a shootout with police, and Dzhokhar, 19, a naturalized U.S. citizen taken into custody in serious condition after an intensive day-long manhunt.
The reform package laboriously crafted by the Senate’s bipartisan Group of 8 (and blessed this week by Obama) would grant provisional legal status to most of the 11 million people in the United States without legal documents. Some of them would have a potential path to citizenship years down the road after many border enforcement conditions have been met.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., made what he called “a conservative case” for the package Saturday in National Review, focused heavily on its border control provisions. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the Florida senator and much-mentioned Republican presidential possibility, has been issuing a series of “Myth vs. Fact” releases to counter misinformation. Speaking Saturday to the Nevada GOP, Rubio said the bombings might make passage tougher, but he noted that the brothers got into this country under the broken system he is trying to fix.
Still, reform advocates are up against rising GOP opposition fueled by the bombings. A sampling: After Suspect No. 1 -- Tamerlan -- was killed, conservative Ann Coulter tweeted: “It’s too bad Suspect #1 won’t be able to be legalized by Marco Rubio, now.” Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis for the conservative American Family Association, tweeted Saturday that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a citizen “because of our insanely misguided immigration policy.” He wondered why Muslims are being allowed in at all.
In contrast, Obama has spent the week tacitly reminding the country of the Latin motto on the seal of the United States: E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one.
The American spirit, he said Friday night after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured, “includes staying true to the unity and diversity that makes us strong -- like no other nation in the world.” Part of the greatness of America and Boston., he added, is that “we welcome people from all around the world -- people of every faith, every ethnicity, from every corner of the globe. So as we continue to learn more about why and how this tragedy happened, let's make sure that we sustain that spirit.”
Obama also celebrated immigration at the prayer service for bombing victims on Thursday. “Boston opens its heart to the world,” he said. “Over successive generations, you’ve welcomed again and again new arrivals to our shores -- immigrants who constantly reinvigorated this city and this commonwealth and our nation.”
Some reform proponents are already making a more explicit and practical counter-argument to counter those who view the Boston bombings as a rationale to kill the reform package. They say the current dysfunctional immigration system is a recipe for more terrorism -- not less. “Immigration reform will strengthen our nation’s security by helping us identify exactly who has entered our country and who has left,” Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham said Friday.
That case, always a hard political sell, has become even more difficult over the past week.
FBI Goof? The FBI says “a foreign government” asked in early 2011 for information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the second suspected bomber, who was killed in a shootout with police this week at age 26. The request was “based on information that he was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country’s region to join unspecified underground groups,” the FBI said.
The changes in Tamerlan were obvious. His aunt said that several years ago he became very religious and started praying five times a day. He grew a long beard. He also married a young American woman, Katherine Russell, and had a daughter with her. Russell – the daughter of a doctor and nurse from North Kingston, R.I. -- converted to Islam and wore Islamic dress.
When the request for information came in 2011, the FBI said it checked into “derogatory telephone communications, possible use of online sites associated with the promotion of radical activity, associations with other persons of interest, travel history and plans, and education history” and “did not find any terrorism activity, domestic or foreign.” But clearly there was no follow-up, or the FBI would probably have noticed that Tamerlan Tsarnaev posted Islamic extremist videos on a YouTube account created in 2012, and flew from New York to Russia in January 2012 and stayed there until July.
Criminal or Combatant? In the latest flare-up of a longrunning conflict between the administration and conservatives, there is already pressure from the right to treat Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a potential enemy combatant who is not entitled to legal protections (such as the right to remain silent) – rather than as a potential criminal who is.
“We remain under threat from radical Islam and we hope the Obama Administration will seriously consider the enemy combatant option,” Graham wrote on Facebook right after Tsarnaev was taken into custody. He said the accused perpetrators of last Monday’s two bombings were “not common criminals” but terrorists, and “the least of our worries is a criminal trial which will likely be held years from now.”
This article appears in the April 22, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.