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Amid renewed terrorism concern, immigration bill would expand asylum opportunities

The Boston Marathon bombing, and subsequent examination of the suspects involved, has already begun influencing the debate over immigration reform in Washington.

This act of terrorism has revived a major question: Who should gain access to the United States and why?

Just as the U.S. Senate was beginning a debate on a bipartisan measure to overhaul America’s immigration policy, bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev refocused the discussion on how people from troubled parts of the world enter the United States, and in some cases are granted asylum.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R- Iowa, said Friday morning at a Judiciary Committee hearing on the immigration bill that “given the events of this week, it’s important for us to understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system.”

Showing concern that statements such as Grassley’s indicate the Massachusetts events could hurt the chances for Congress passing their immigration overhaul, two Republican sponsors of the bill, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., released a statement Friday saying that, “Immigration reform will strengthen our nation’s security by helping us identify exactly who has entered our country and who has left – a basic function of government that our broken immigration system is incapable of accomplishing today.”

They added, “By modernizing our system of legal immigration, identifying and conducting background checks on people here illegally, and finally securing our border, we will make America more secure.”

Depending on what’s learned in the coming days about the Massachusetts suspects, the debate could begin to center not only on who enters the country, but on their family members and their potential to join a terrorist cause or commit terrorist acts.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – the Boston bombing suspect whom authorities were still searching for as of Friday afternoon – was born on July 22, 1993 and flew to the United States on April 12, 2002 with his family which applied for asylum.

The Tsarnaev family, ethnic Chechens, an embattled minority nationality in Russia, was granted legal permanent residence in 2007 and Dzhokhar became a naturalized citizen last year.

U.S. policy has long been to grant asylum to non-citizens who can show that they have a well-founded fear that if they return to their country of origin, they’ll be persecuted based upon their nationality, religion, membership in a particular social group, or political views.

According to a 2011 report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), asylum seekers “are subject to multiple national security screenings” and if an asylum seeker is a suspected or known terrorist, the law “bars alien terrorists from entering the United States.”

But the report also noted that some observers “express concern that U.S. sympathies for the asylum seekers caught up in the democratic political uprisings in the Middle East, northern Africa, and south Asia could inadvertently facilitate the entry of terrorists.”

In 2011, nearly 25,000 people were granted asylum. According to the Congressional Research Service, about 30 percent of asylum applicants in recent years have been granted asylum.

Spouses and unmarried children (under the age of 21) may get “derivative” asylum status from the person who is first granted asylum.

Crystal Williams, the executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), said Friday that she hoped the Boston Marathon bombing and the alleged role of the Tsarnaev brothers won’t affect the congressional immigration debate.

“It really is unrelated to anything to do with immigration,” Williams said. “From the information we have now, both of these individuals entered as children. Whatever points of view they developed, they developed in the United States.”

She said any examination of their views when they entered the United States “would not have uncovered what developed in their minds ten years later.”

The immigration bill introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., McCain, Graham and other cosponsors would make some changes to asylum policy, while retaining the standard of granting refuge to those who show a well-founded fear of persecution if they return to their home country.

The bill – known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act – would make it easier for asylum seekers and their family members by eliminating the existing one-year deadline for filing an asylum application.

It would also expand the categories of family members who qualify for “derivative” asylum status to include children of the spouse of the person granted asylum, and the grandchildren of the person granted asylum.

AILA’s Williams noted another important change that the bill would make.

Under current law, she said, “when somebody appears at a port of entry of the United States and makes a request there for asylum, the situation is that an asylum officer will conduct what’s called a ‘credible fear’ interview. If the asylum officer feels this person has made at least a basic case for asylum, then he will let them in to pursue the asylum application.”

But under the Schumer-McCain-Graham bill, “if the person makes such a compelling case right there (at the port of entry) they don’t have to go through a second process … It cuts out a second step for the more compelling cases.”

Jonathan Dienst of NBC New York contributed to this story.

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