Will the Boston Attack Kill Immigration Reform?

By Tom Rosshirt

April 20, 2013 6 min read

As news came out Friday on the background of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings, TV commentators were speculating that the two young men had been "radicalized."

The more salient question is whether they will radicalize us.

Twelve years ago, in the traumatic aftermath of 9/11, one cartoonist wrote that there were "3,000 dead, 300 million wounded." And wounded people can do self-destructive things.

We invaded Afghanistan. We invaded Iraq. We spent hundreds of billions of dollars on homeland security and national defense. Scaled back civil liberties. Adopted policies of torture. Disgraced ourselves at Abu Ghraib. Made the country more hostile to visitors. Offered undue deference to political leaders who pushed through huge tax cuts at a time of war.

On the death of Osama bin Laden, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, an expert on al-Qaida, pointed out that bin Laden's strategy against America was similar to the strategy he and the Afghans had used against the Soviet Union — bleed them until they go bankrupt. Bin Laden couldn't do that on his own; he needed our help.

It's 12 years later now. We're older and wiser, and this attack was lighter. Will it have the power to distort U.S. policy?

One day after the terrorist attack in Boston, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a tea party favorite, seized on the tragedy to try to slow down work in Congress on immigration reform.

King said: "Some of the speculation that has come out is that yes, it was a foreign national and, speculating here, that it was potentially a person on a student visa. If that's the case, then we need to take a look at the big picture. ... We need to go far deeper into our border crossings."

King's attempt to use the terror attack against immigration drew a rebuke from another tea party favorite, Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American Republican senator from Florida who co-authored the immigration bill now in the Senate and has become the face of immigration reform.

"We should really be very cautious about using language that links these two things in any way," Rubio said. "We know very little about Boston other than that it was obviously an act of terror."

Now that the media are reporting that the suspects are two young Muslim men of Chechen origin, how will this affect the immigration debate and the bitter divisions between the two sides?

This comes at an excruciating time for Republicans, who are trying to broaden the party's appeal to Hispanics. The most recent time Republicans tried to pass immigration reform, in 2007, the hostile opposition from the right wing killed the bill and set back relations with Hispanics even further.

This time, early reactions from conservatives were somewhat muted, an encouraging sign for immigration advocates. But if King's comments after the bombing are any indication, the anti-immigration forces will exploit the identity of the bombing suspects to stir up opposition to the bill.

The key thing to watch, in my view, is Rubio's response.

Rubio already has taken a big personal and political risk in becoming a leading advocate for immigration reform. If, as in the past, the immigration debate makes opponents angry, they will be angry with him. If people come to hate the bill, they are going to hate him.

This may be an ordinary hazard for most politicians, but not for a Republican with presidential ambitions. Leading the effort to pass immigration reform will make it much harder for Rubio to win his party's nomination. Republican primary voters are so hostile to immigration that in 2012, a calculating Mitt Romney played the part of an anti-immigration extremist.

If Rubio can help pass immigration reform and then still win the support of Republican primary voters in 2016, he will have done more than change immigration law; he will have changed the laws of Republican politics.

That is what his party is asking him to do — not only to help pass a bill but to do it in a way that can help heal the rift between his party and his fellow Hispanics.

This is a big deal. This is entirely different from Republican tactical approaches to victory — such as getting more money from corporations, creating more voting barriers for minorities, catching up with the Democrats on technology, and stirring up the base. This is a strategic effort by Republicans to embrace a new policy that will bring new voters into the party.

This was an ambitious plan even in the calmest of times. After Boston, it's audacious. Will they stick with it? Or will they fold when opponents cite terrorist suspects who came here as children from Dagestan as an excuse to alienate residents who came here as children from Mexico?

This is a historic moment for democracy in America. Whatever anyone thinks of Rubio, we all ought to keep watching. He won't be the same person when this is over, and we won't be the same country.

Tom Rosshirt was a national security speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and a foreign affairs spokesman for Vice President Al Gore. Email him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Rosshirt and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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