Big news stories often produce political non sequiturs, and the bigger the story, the more nonsensical the attempts to attach political issues to it. The Boston Marathon bombings and the attempts to exploit them for favored hobbyhorses has proven no exception to this rule. Over the last few days, we've seen members of the media and politicians alike attempt to use the story as a platform for making points about everything from gun control to Gitmo.
Over the weekend, though, as details about the suspected bombers and their status in the U.S. became more widely known, the talk turned to the immigration reform bill introduced by the Gang of Eight in the Senate. Partisans on both sides claimed that the terrorist attack in Boston should either accelerate or postpone consideration of the proposal. For instance, comprehensive immigration reform proponent John McCain told CNBC that the bill would enhance the tracking of foreigners going into and out of the country:
"Our bill tightens that up. We're going to require e-verify documentation that someone is here legally," McCain said. "But also, more importantly, exit as well as entry checking on everybody who enters and leaves this country."
Well, we already do that. The problem in the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev wasn't a lack of checking, but a misspelled manifest — which allowed Tsarnaev to elude detection as he traveled back to Russia. Russia had alerted the FBI to Tsarnaev in 2011 in an unusual move, but the FBI could find no evidence of a threat. However, this has nothing to do with immigration services, because Tsarnaev and his family had been legal resident aliens for almost a decade by this time.
Lindsey Graham tried offering his own argument to push his bill in light of developments in Boston. "Now is the time to bring all of the 11 million [illegal immigrants] out of the shadows and find out who they are," Graham declared on CNN's State of the Union on Sunday. "We may find some terrorists in our midst who have been hiding in the shadows." That's certainly true — but entirely unrelated to what happened in Boston. Not only was Tamerlan a green-card holder for years, he had actually competed to represent the U.S. in the Olympics in boxing a few years earlier. His younger brother and alleged co-conspirator Dzhokhar became a naturalized American citizen last year, ironically on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Whatever else the Tsarnaev brothers were doing, they weren't "hiding in the shadows."
So, these arguments for immigration reform turn out to be irrelevant. How about the arguments against consideration of immigration reform? They hardly fare much better. The basic components of comprehensive immigration reform are (a) improving border security to guard against secret infiltration into the U.S., (b) revamping the visa system to provide accurate data and timely response to violations and expirations, and (c) answering the question of what to do with approximately 11 million people who entered the U.S. illegally. The Tsarnaevs emigrated legally as refugees and established permanent residency, areas of immigration law to which no one has produced any serious systemic objections.
That didn't stop Charles Grassley and Rand Paul from demanding that consideration of the bill be stopped to reconsider national-security issues. "Given the events of this week," Grassley said during a hearing on the bill Friday, "it's important for us to understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system." On Monday, Rand Paul wrote a request to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to postpone debate on the bill, saying that the bombing case had "exposed a weakness in our current system.... 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?"
Those aren't bad questions, either — but they are irrelevant to border security, visas, and the status of 11 million people already in the U.S., all situations that also demand attention. Nearly a decade ago, the 9/11 Commission highlighted all three of those issues as pressing national-security concerns, and the U.S. has done nothing to address any of them since. In part, that's because Republicans and Democrats have fought continuously over whether to address them separately or comprehensively. We don't have to wait to figure out what happened with the decision to admit the Tsarnaevs before fixing other long-broken parts of our immigration and national-security systems. Even if Paul and Grassley insist on addressing other significant issues, that could be accomplished through an amendment process to the central bill under debate.
Overall, I take an agnostic view of the Gang of Eight proposal. I want the issues identified by the 9/11 Commission to be resolved, especially on border security and visa reform. We need to find a way to treat the people encouraged by the U.S. to provide cheap labor over the years in a humane fashion while prioritizing those who played by the rules to live in the U.S., and that process should allow us to get a much clearer idea of who is in the country — and narrow considerably the search for those "hiding in the shadows" for malicious reasons. But national security has to come first, if for no other reason than to avoid having to address the same issues all over again a decade down the road. Does this bill do that? So far, the triggers don't appear to have significant teeth, but the debate and amendment process may well improve them to ensure that we actually solve the problems we face.
Either way, there is no reason to delay consideration of these issues any longer than we already have. Either the Gang of Eight proposal deals with these issues properly or it doesn't, but let's debate it now and find out. If the Boston bombing case raises other questions about refugee policy, take those up as well, either separately or jointly. But let's get past the non sequiturs and start dealing with these issues in a rational manner. Otherwise, we risk making "national security" and "self-government" the biggest non sequiturs of all.