Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach told a Senate panel in Washington on Monday that a pending immigration reform bill could make life easier for terrorists like the alleged bombers of the Boston Marathon.
While he spoke against the proposed law in the Judiciary Committee hearing, 50 other Kansans with the pro-immigrant group Sunflower Community Action voiced support for the bill in a news conference just outside the room.
The subject of the daylong hearing was a sweeping proposal to strengthen border security, allow tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country, require all employers to check their workers’ legal status, and provide an eventual path to citizenship for some 11 million immigrants now here illegally.
Kobach, invited to give testimony in the hearing, called the path to citizenship “amnesty” and questioned a provision that would allow illegal immigrants to obtain a government photo ID.
“The background checks in this bill are insufficient to prevent a terrorist from getting the amnesty,” he said in a video feed from the hearing.
Kobach said someone could use his own name – or simply make one up – and obtain identification that would allow him not only to remain in the country, but also to travel internationally to plot with terrorist contacts.
He linked that ability directly to the Boston bombings and the Chechen immigrant brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamarlan Tsarnaev, who are alleged to have committed the crime.
“(Tamarlan) Tsarnaev had at least two background checks and he had a personal interview with the FBI, yet they were still unable to conclude that he might have terrorist intentions and should be barred from the country,” Kobach said.
He also said the proposed bill would “hobble” state immigration enforcement efforts like the one in Arizona, where a Kobach-authored law authorizes local police to question and detain people they suspect of being in the country illegally.
Outside the room, Kansas artist Armando Minjarez, 26, a onetime illegal immigrant who came to Kansas with his parents in 2001 as a teen-ager, told his story to reporters. He graduated from high school in 2005 and was accepted into the architectural program at Kansas State University, but he couldn’t attend because then, children of illegal immigrants were considered foreign students who had to pay three times the tuition, he said.
After the in-state tuition law passed in 2006, Minjarez was able to enroll at Garden City Community College and eventually graduated from K-State with a degree in fine arts. His work is currently part of an exhibition at the Mid-American Fine Arts Gallery in Wichita.
Minjarez married a citizen and has legal status. But he said he worries for his family.
“I’m just waiting for a phone call to tell me that my mother has been detained and will be deported, or my brother,” he said.
The Sunflower group took a 22-hour bus ride from Wichita to Washington for the hearing, carrying a message that the final bill should include a reasonable path to citizenship and ensure that families can stay together and workers be protected while awaiting permanent resident status.
Sunflower executive director Sulma Arias criticized Kobach for bringing the Boston terrorism incident into the conversation.
“It’s unfortunate that Secretary Kobach is using the horrendous attack on America last week to go out of his way to continue to divide, confuse and slow down the progress on an issue that is long overdue,” Arias said in a statement after the hearing.
Arias’ comment echoed a complaint that set off a testy exchange between senators during the hearing, where Democratic supporters of the bill accused opponents of trying to “exploit” the Boston bombings to hold up the legislation.
“I never said that! I never said that!” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, interjected as Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a lead author of the bill, criticized “those who are pointing to what happened, the terrible tragedy in Boston, as a, I would say, excuse for not doing a bill or delaying it.”
Schumer said he wasn’t talking about Grassley, who said last week that the bombings raised question about gaps in the U.S. immigration system that should be examined in context of the new bill. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., banged his gavel to settle the proceedings.
The obstacles to the legislation, released last week by a group of four Republican and four Democratic senators, were on stark display Monday. Polls show majority public backing for comprehensive legislation including a path to citizenship, and many Republicans also support such an approach. But in some corners, opposition has not wavered. That became clear as GOP senators took turns offering critiques.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called a path to citizenship divisive, and said that “any bill that insists upon that jeopardizes the likelihood of passing any immigration reform bill.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., contended that the new bill would drive down wages and eliminate jobs for American workers.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the border security piece of the bill “falls well short of the sponsors’ aspiration to protect the borders and maintain U.S. sovereignty.”
And Grassley said new requirements mandating employers to verify employees’ legal status are ineffective.
Republicans weren’t the only ones to find the legislation wanting. Several Democrats expressed concerns over the exclusion of provisions to recognize gay marriages for immigration purposes. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., promised to fight to get such a measure included – something Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has said could sink the bill.
Contributing: Jim Kuhnhenn of The Associated Press