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Senators spar over Boston bombing's effect on immigration bill

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee continued their fencing Monday over whether anyone is trying to use the Boston Marathon bombing to impede consideration of a bipartisan bill to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.

When the bill’s principal sponsor, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., at Monday’s Judiciary Committee hearing accused persons whom he did not identify of trying to use the bombing as “an excuse” to delay or stop the consideration of the bill, ranking Republican member Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa angrily interrupted him by snapping, “I never said that! I never said that!”

Schumer replied, “ I don’t mean you, Mr. Grassley,” and then said his comments “were not aimed at anyone on this committee,” but rather to unnamed “people out there – you’ve read it in the newspapers” who have said the Boston bombing is a reason to delay the bill.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, takes exception to a remark made by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., during Monday's Senate immigration bill hearing.

Earlier in the hearing committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said, “Let no one be so cruel as to try to use the heinous acts of these two young men last week to derail the dreams and futures of millions of hard-working people.”

The Tsarnaev family applied for asylum in the United States in 2002 and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – the Boston bombing suspect who was captured Friday and is in a hospital in Boston -- became a naturalized American citizen last year.

Leahy argued that refugees and asylum seekers “have enriched the fabric of the country from our founding,” noting that in Vermont “we welcome as neighbors Bhutanese, Burmese and Somalis.”

That comment drew a response from Grassley reminding Leahy that he and other Democrats had used the Newtown, Conn., shooting as an opportunity to push for restrictions on gun buyers.

When Democrats proposed gun legislation, Grassley said, “I didn’t accuse you of using the Norristown (Newtown) killings as an excuse.”

And referring to last week’s explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas, Grassley added, “I didn’t hear any criticism of people when there’s 14 people killed in West, Texas and demanding, taking advantage of that, trying to warn about (the need for) more government action to make sure that fertilizer factories are safe.”

He added, “I think we’re taking advantage of an opportunity – when once in 25 years we deal with immigration – to make sure that every base is covered.”

Grassley had said on Friday that the Boston bombing should prompt Congress to “understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system” and to examine “the weaknesses of our system.”

A prominent Republican senator who does not serve on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, joined the debate Monday by sending a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, saying that the Senate should not proceed with the immigration bill “until we understand the specific failures of our immigration 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? Were there any safeguards? Could this have been prevented? Does the immigration reform before us address this?”

Paul said, “Extra screening is necessary from nations that have a higher population of extremists.”

And he called for hearings by the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, on which he serves, to ensure that “our current immigration system gives individuals from high-risk areas of the world heightened scrutiny.”

Noting a case in his own state earlier this year involving Iraqi refugees who “were sentenced to long prison terms for participating in terrorism and providing material support to terrorists while living in the United States,” Paul said the immigration bill should address and prevent such cases.

Schumer said Monday – as he did at Friday’s Judiciary Committee hearing – that “if there are things that come up as a result of what happened in Boston that require improvement” in his bill, “let’s add them to the bill.” The New York Democrat said the bipartisan bill “tightens up” the immigration system “in a way that would make a Boston (bombing) less likely.” He specifically cited the creation of an entry-exit system to detect if foreigner visitors to the United States overstay their visas and the bill’s requirement that people illegally present in the United States register with the federal government. “Now maybe it should made tighter still we’re open to that,” Schumer said.

The bill, co-sponsored by three other Democrats and by four Republican senators, also would liberalize the asylum process, making it easier for foreigners to apply for asylum and expanding the number of an asylee’s relatives who could be brought to the United States.

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