HANSON: Confronting the dreaded D-word

The Boston bombing raises the question, when are deportations necessary?

Deportation has become a near-taboo word. Yet the recent Boston bombings inevitably rekindle old questions about the way the United States admits, or at times deports, foreign nationals.

Despite the Obama administration’s politically driven and cyclical claims of deporting either a lot more or a lot fewer noncitizens, no one knows how many are really being sent home — for a variety of reasons.

There are no accurate statistics on how many people are living in the United States illegally. How does one define deportation? If someone from Latin America is detained by authorities an hour after illegally crossing the border, does he count as “apprehended” or “deported”?

“Deportation” is now politically incorrect, sort of like the T-word — “terrorism” — that the administration also seeks to avoid. The current government emphasis is on increasing legal immigration and granting amnesties, but by no means is Washington as interested in clarifying deportation.

Why was the Tsarnaev family granted asylum into the United States — and why were some of them not later deported? Officially, the Tsarnaevs came here as refugees. As ethnic Chechens and former residents of Kyrgyzstan, they sought asylum here from anti-Muslim persecution — given that Russia had waged a brutal war in Chechnya against Islamic militants.

Certainly, the environment of Islamic Russia was and can be deadly. If the Tsarnaevs were supposedly in danger in their native country, though, why did the father, Anzor, after a few years choose to return to Dagestan, Russia, where he now apparently lives in relative safety? Why did one of the alleged Boston bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, return to his native land for six months last year — given that escape from such an unsafe place was the very reason that the United States granted his family asylum in the first place?

That is not an irrelevant question. Recently, some supposedly persecuted Somalis were generously granted asylum to immigrate to Minnesota communities, only to later fly back to Somalia to wage jihad. Were they true refugees fleeing persecution against Muslims or extremists looking for a breather in the United States?

What, exactly, justifies deportation of immigrants of any status? Failure to find work and to become self-supporting? Apparently not. The Tsarnaev family reportedly had been on public assistance. This is not an isolated or unusual concern. President Obama’s own aunt, Zeituni Onyango, not only broke immigration law by overstaying her tourist visa, but also compounded that violation by illegally receiving state assistance as a resident of public housing. Only after Mr. Obama was elected president was his aunt finally granted political asylum on the grounds that she would be unsafe in her native Kenya.

Should those residing here illegally at least avoid arrest and follow the rules of their adopted country? Apparently not — given that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a skilled boxer, was charged in 2009 with domestic violence against his girlfriend. His mother, Zubeidat, also back in Russia now, was reportedly arrested last year on charges of shoplifting some $1,600 in goods from a Boston store.

Again, these are not irrelevant questions. Mr. Obama’s own uncle, Onyango Obama, is at present illegally residing in the United States. In 2011, he was cited for drunken driving after nearly slamming into a police car.

Would embracing radical ideological movements that have waged war on the United States be a cause for deportation? Apparently not. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was interviewed by the FBI in 2010, based on information from a foreign intelligence agency that he might pose a threat as a radical Islamist. The FBI knew from Tsarnaev’s Web postings about his not-so-private sympathies toward radical Islam.

Americans are a generous people who take in more immigrants than any other nation in the world. The sticking point in the current debate over immigration reform is not necessarily the granting of residency per se — given that most Americans are willing to consider a pathway to citizenship for even those who initially broke immigration law but have since not been arrested, have avoided public assistance, and have tried to learn the language and customs of their newly adopted country.

The problem is what to do with those who have not done all that.

Unless the government can assure the public that it is now enforcing immigration laws already on the books, that foreign nationals must at least avoid arrest and public assistance, and that it is disinclined to grant asylum to “refugees” from war-torn Islamic regions and then allow them periodically to go back and forth from their supposedly hostile homelands, there will be little support for the current immigration bill.

In short, the Tsarnaev brothers have offered us a proverbial teachable moment about what have become near-suicidal immigration policies.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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