The Boston Marathon bombing hasn’t derailed the immigration debate, but it has sent lawmakers back to the drawing board on some key provisions, including changes to the asylum system that the two suspects in the bombing used to come to the U.S.
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were brought to the U.S. a decade ago by their parents, who fled the deteriorating economy and burgeoning conflicts in the Central Asian region the family had called home.
Now, as the Senate Judiciary Committee works its way through the 867-page immigration bill, some lawmakers say it’s a chance to make changes that could help prevent a future incident.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the committee, has introduced an amendment that would prevent any changes to the asylum or refugee systems until at least a year after an audit of what went wrong in Boston.
“The Boston bombing probably made us take a closer look at the asylum provisions in the underlying bill,” Mr. Grassley said. “My asylum amendments don’t address Boston specifically, but they will require a look back by the inspector general before any changes to weaken the current asylum law goes forward.”
The asylum program is for those who apply from within the U.S., while the refugee program is for those applying from outside the border. The U.S. is the most generous country in the world in granting protections, but the programs also have seen periods of fraud and abuse.
Mr. Grassley said the bill written by the “Gang of Eight” senators actually waters down some of the security measures in current asylum and refugee law, and he said he would prefer to see the process stiffened instead.
One of the changes in the bill is to remove the one-year limit on how long someone has to file an asylum application. The time limit was imposed in 1996 as a way to try to weed out fraudulent applications.
But human rights advocates said it’s also caused denials and delays for thousands of people who have valid cases but don’t file on time — sometimes because their home country doesn’t deteriorate until well after they arrive here, and they couldn’t have predicted it.
Others will arrive in the U.S. legally and wait for that visa to expire before applying for asylum — and could have inadvertently outlasted their one-year limit.
“Generally, the instinct is to wait it out, things will change in their home country and they’ll be able to go back. They need a safe haven for a while,” said Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. “If they’re forced to file for asylum within a year, they’ve really got to make a decision and change their orientation and planning for the future.”
Another change the bill makes to current law is to give the administration the ability to grant protective status based on someone’s association with what the law calls a “particular social group.”
Human rights groups cheered both of those changes, but are gearing up for a fight over another proposal by Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, who wants to prevent anyone granted asylum or refugee status from returning to their home countries, unless they got a waiver from the Homeland Security Department.
That could have applied to Tamerlan Tsarnaev, whose trip to Russia last year has been the source of intense speculation about whether it’s where he became radicalized. Russian authorities warned the U.S. about the young man and the FBI investigated but didn’t find any links to extremists, the agency has said.
“If someone goes as far as having to seek asylum in the United States, they should not be returning to the place they used to call home,” said Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Mr. Graham.
But human rights advocates say that would be a mistake.
Erol Kekic, director of the Church World Service’s immigration and refugee program, said there are situations where someone wants to return home to see a dying relative or to try to play a role in constructive politics. And then there are the situations where someone was granted asylum years before, but their home country has since stabilized.
“If we’re going to deny protection for people like that I think that’s really taking away from any common sense,” Mr. Kekic said.
He said it wasn’t even clear whether Homeland Security officials could track every person they suspected of returning to their home countries.
“I really don’t think this is practical in any way, nor is it effective. I just think it’s politically motivated, and that’s unfortunate,” he said.
Meanwhile, the committee has already approved one amendment from Mr. Grassley that would crack down on another part of the Boston saga.
Asamat Tazhayakov, one of three men accused of hiding evidence on behalf of the accused bombers, was readmitted to the U.S. earlier this year even though his student visa had expired. The visa information wasn’t shared with frontline Customs and Border Protection officers at the airport, who admitted him without knowing he should have been denied.
The committee unanimously adopted an amendment that requires information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System be available to all border protection officers at ports of entry.