Immigration reform after Boston

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, April 23, 2013


Just like the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut did not bring about tougher gun control legislation in the United States, the Boston marathon bombings on April 15, 2013, will have no effect on the progress of immigration reform. The road ahead for a reform that offers a pathway to citizenship to 11 million undocumented workers is certainly difficult. Yet, the fact that the two leading suspects of having perpetrated the attacks, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, were a naturalized citizen and a permanent resident will not be a relevant factor in the negotiations that will take place in the upcoming months to fix America's broken immigration system.


When Adam Lanza, an armed gunman killed 20 children and 6 adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, many observers mistakenly predicted that Americans finally had enough with gun violence and that a majority of the population would be in favor of making it more difficult for Americans to buy guns. For a number of years before the massacre, Americans have been in favor of more regulation over the sales of weapons, but the powerful lobbying by the National Rifle Association and other interest groups have successfully blocked reform efforts. The Sandy Hook massacre did not sway public opinion. The death of innocent children temporarily put the issue on the spotlight, but there was no noticeable change in the slowly growing trend in favor of more regulation on the sales of powerful weapons.


The fact that American public opinion quickly moves on to the next big news makes it easier for organized lobbying groups to get their way in Congress when ordinary people stop paying attention. As some issues are not an everyday priority among the mass public, they only become salient when something special happens. Tragic events bring temporary mass media attention to some issues. The public expresses its preference for a sensible policy and many observers are wrongly led to believe that lobbying efforts by interested parties will now fail to impose their view. However, as public attention moves elsewhere, lobbying groups regain their influence and end up imposing their views.  Because lobbying groups are most effective when the spotlight is not on their preferred policies, they just wait until public attention moves to another issue before they start pulling their strings and exercising their influence to make sure that no new legislation hinders their interests.


Immigration reform will follow a similar trajectory. The legalization of 11 million undocumented workers is not a priority for a majority of Americans. Moreover, public opinion is divided on how to fix the system. Most Americans want undocumented immigrants—those who have broken the law by entering the country illegally or by overstaying their visas—to get back at the end of the line, behind those who are legally awaiting their immigration visas in their home countries. However, advocates of immigration reform—including immigrants’ rights groups, business groups and the farm industry—want to provide documents and a pathway to legalization (Republicans) or citizenship (Democrats) to those who are already in the U.S. Because they fear that newly naturalized immigrants will mostly vote Democratic—for a large majority of them are of Mexican origin—Republicans are in favor of an immigration reform that legalizes those undocumented workers without offering them a path to citizenship.


The revelations that the two main suspects in the Boston bombings—the brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev—are immigrants themselves immediately led many observers to link the attack with a possible backlash against immigration reform. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has been charged with the attacks—is a naturalized American citizen.  His brother Tamerlan, who died in a shootout with the police, was a permanent resident in the U.S.  Their father migrated to the U.S. and applied for political asylum in 2002.  Though the alleged perpetrators do not fit the stereotype of an undocumented worker that will benefit from the immigration reform now being discussed in Congress—nor do they fit the racial stereotype of Islamic extremists—the connection between their immigrant origin and the attack against civilians in the U.S. has inevitably contaminated the immigration debate. Never mind that the brothers entered the country legally and were granted documents when his father applied as a refugee, for many Americans, the fact that two foreign-born legal residents carried the attack should be reason enough to make it harder for undocumented workers to find a path to legalization.


Fortunately, just as the spotlight moved away from regulating the possession of firearms a couple of weeks after the Newtown shooting, the Boston bombing will soon be just one more deadly incident in a country that has gotten used to these kinds of attacks. Since pro-immigration reform advocates know that there is nothing more damaging to advance a policy reform than to be on the negative spotlight, they will have to be more patient and wait for the right moment to bring up the proposed reforms for debate in Congress later this year.