Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Senate immigration hearing branches out from Boston bombing concerns

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Immigration reform and terrorism collided once again at Tuesday's Senate Judiciary hearing.

In her first appearance on Capitol Hill since the Boston Marathon bombings, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Senators, "We will learn lessons from this attack, just as we have from past instances of terrorism and violent extremism." Napolitano added, "We will apply those, we will emerge even stronger."

But the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, brought up a long list of national security concerns — the 9-11 terrorists abusing student visas, and not sufficiently tracking suspected Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev after he traveled to Russia on a trip that had been flagged by authorities there. "If the background checks on the 12 million people who are here illegally are anything like they were like the Boston bomber, we’re in serious trouble," Grassley said.

The senator said Congress should “carefully review the immigration laws” to ensure critical national security issues are being addressed.

Napolitano used every opportunity to remind senators the new immigration bill would make America safer.

California’s senior senator honed in on a continuing national security problem: student visa fraud. Democrat Dianne Feinstein cited a report from last summer from the General Accountability Office that found what she called “very suspicious activities” at eight California schools. Those schools helped foreign nationals obtain student visas. Homeland Security never monitored whether students were attending classes — or even if there were any classes.

The owner of one school in Los Angeles – the Concord English Language Center – was convicted of operating a visa scheme whose participants included Russian prostitutes.  The owner got a two-year sentence and $50,000 fine. Tri-Valley University in the San Francisco Bay Area town of Pleasanton was raided two years ago a sting operation caught the school giving student visas to undercover federal agents. Students there paid $5,400 in tuition per semester that helped them obtain visas that also allowed them to work in the U.S. A school in Georgia also allegedly used student visas to bring in prostitutes to work at a local bar.

Feinstein asked Napolitano whether a new database will improve Homeland Security’s ability to monitor international students and the schools they attend. Napolitano assured her it was. "We'll count on it," Feinstein replied.

Napolitano was originally scheduled to testify last Friday on the immigration bill. Events in Boston,  as well as ricin laced letters addressed to a Senator and the President, delayed that appearance.

The immigration bill now moves to “markup” – the time when Senators can add their amendments to the measure. A vote by the full Senate isn’t expected until summer.


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