Suspects' heritage becomes part of immigration debate

  • Article by: TRIP GABRIEL
  • New York Times
  • April 20, 2013 - 6:51 PM


– With the television in her pizzeria showing an endless loop of the Boston manhunt Friday, Bessie Kontis glanced up at scenes of the lockdown and shuddered.

“After something like that happens, they should stop all visas, for crying out loud,” said Kontis, 58, who owns New Wayne Pizza with her husband, Alex. “It’s insane. It just angers me.”

Kontis was born in Greece and immigrated to the United States as a child, but when two men of Chechen heritage were identified as the suspects in the fatal Boston Marathon bombings, her views about immigration became colored by concerns for national security.

“That is who’s coming in,” she said. “We don’t know what kind of people they are. The bottom line is we have to stop being goody-goody Americans.”

As a national debate over major immigration reform begins in Congress, some opponents are pointing to the Boston bombings as cause for concern about expanding visa programs and offering millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

On Friday, Sen. Charles Grassley, a senior Iowa Republican on the committee debating the plan, said the terrorist bombings should figure into the debate. Some conservative commentators and Republicans want to shift the focus away from economic and humanitarian concerns to border security and the potential threat from terrorists entering the country.

How successful their efforts turn out to be, and whether Boston slows momentum for reform, could depend on how many citizens express views like Kontis’.

In interviews, many mentioned that the two brothers accused in the attacks — Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, who was captured Friday, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who was killed earlier — had arrived in the country a decade earlier, with a father who claimed asylum because of the conflict in their homeland. They could hardly have been identified by more vigilant border control, some people said.

“You can’t stop people who came into the U.S. who 10 years later do bad things,” said Andrew Factor, 26, an investment adviser. “We’re supposed to screen for terrorists when kids are 9 and 16?”

But the issue evokes visceral reactions. “I’m a little more of an extremist now after what happened in Boston,” said Greg Ricker, 41, a stockbroker. “I think we should just stop letting people in.”

Attitudes toward immigration reform seem to be changing, in part along generational lines. Frank Cunningham, 27, an accountant, said that he, unlike his father, favored a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. “The way I was raised, my dad says, ‘If you come into the country illegally, you don’t deserve to be here,”’ he said, “but I’m wondering, who is going to do those jobs?”

Gary Burnett, 35, said he favored a path to citizenship and expanded permanent-resident visas for those waiting outside the country, because the nation is already part of a global economy. As a software engineer, he said, “I compete with the entire world already. I have to be able to do the work of at least three people in Asia to compete.”

Melvin Cook, 57, accused politicians of exploiting the bombing. “They’re trying to put fear into us of immigrants.”

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