The Tsarnaevs And The Immigration Debate

The Boston bombings came at an inconvenient time for the politicos who are working on an immigration reform bill — but that might be a good thing.

In our catch-phrase, talking-point era, the immigration issue has been reduced to mantras like “securing our borders” and fuzzy video images of people scaling flimsy walls in desert landscapes.  Of course, immigration involves a much more complex, multi-faceted set of concepts and questions.  We are a land of immigrants, built in large part through the hard work and aspirations of those who came to our shores in search of freedom.  We need immigrants to perform certain jobs in our economy, and we want immigrants who will be doctors and entrepreneurs.  We feel a more obligation to offer asylum to those seeking to escape persecution in their native lands.  Millions of people now working in America came here illegally; what are we realistically to do about them?

The Tsarnaev brothers accused of perpetrating the Boston bombings cast a different perspective on the immigration debate.  They didn’t come here smuggled in the hold of a ship or sneaking across the border in the dead of night.  “Securing our borders” through towering walls or armed forces in the southwest wouldn’t have stopped their arrival.  And what happened after they got here?  News reports indicate that various members of the Tsarnaev family received government assistance.  It’s not clear that the Tsarnaev brothers ever held a permanent job.  If they had had to find gainful employment, and didn’t have hours of free time to surf the internet for hateful messages and theories, would they have descended into apparent jihadist beliefs?  Tamerlan Tsarnaev eventually was targeted as a potential radical in comments from a foreign government, investigated by the FBI, and put on a CIA watchlist.  Should something more have been done about him?

The Tsarnaevs shouldn’t define the immigration debate, of course, but neither should we ignore lessons we might learn from them.  As immigration reform is debated in Congress, it’s entirely legitimate to ask whether our experience with the Tsarnaevs should cause us to revisit how we decide to allow people to come to America, what we should do, if anything, to monitor them after they arrive, and whether we should be able to take action if their conduct after their arrival indicates that they aren’t making positive contributions to society.

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