What Happened in Boston, Part 2: On the Matters of Immigration Screening, Naturalization, and Denaturalization

By W.D. Reasoner on April 25, 2013

Author's note: This is the second of two blogs on the subject of the Boston Marathon terrorist bombings. Read Part 1.

Two bombs serially exploded at the Boston Marathon on Monday, April 15, wounding 280-plus people and killing another three. By the early morning hours of Friday, April 19, two brothers, in a panic that their photos had been released by police to the media as suspects of interest, went on a crime spree involving a carjacking, an ATM theft, and the murder of one police officer and serious wounding of a second. They were tracked and the older brother died in a shootout at the scene while the younger escaped, only to be found and arrested 20 hours later (Friday evening), wounded and hiding in a boat.

The brothers are publicly identified as Tamerlan (26 years of age; deceased) and Dzhokhar (19; recuperating under guard) Tsarnaev — ethnic Chechen Muslims who immigrated to the United States via Kazakhstan approximately 10 years ago. Exactly how the brothers immigrated is still murky; quite possibly as refugees or asylees if their religion and ethnicity give us a clue. But the timelines and places given in media accounts for their birth and upbringing don't completely hang together (as I discussed in my prior blog), and it leads one to wonder whether there was some artful deception or withholding of material information in whatever paperwork they and their parents submitted to U.S. immigration authorities to obtain legal status to live here.

Then there is the odd fact that the Russian federal security service contacted the FBI inquiring about Tamerlan in the context of Islamic radicalism. This is significant because Russian security officers have been actively fighting Islamic radicals and separatists in the Caucasus region for many, many years and could be presumed to have enough knowledge and expertise not to waste their own, or anybody else's, time with insignificant inquiries.

Nonetheless, according to some media accounts, the FBI confirms the Russian contact and says it interviewed him as a result, but then asked the Russians for more information, which, when it was not forthcoming, led them to go no further with their inquiries. I hope that's not their final word on this, because such an explanation sounds both weak and peevish; a bit like "when they didn't play nice with us, we took our marbles and went home." The FBI has had extraordinary powers granted it by the Patriot Act, which the agency routinely uses in national security cases. Why didn't they issue national security letters and track his telephone and e-mail accounts to see what story those told, in addition to his international travel?

But let's not go too far down that path — I have little doubt that dozens of inspectors general and congressional investigators will be knocking on Director Mueller's door looking for answers — and get back to the issue of immigration and its relation to this case.

Notwithstanding everything else that's still murky, what is undisputed is that the younger brother, Dzhokhar, is a naturalized citizen, and his now-dead brother, Tamerlan, was a resident alien and applicant for citizenship when they engaged in these crimes.

Don't you wonder how it is that, under the circumstances, our federal immigration authorities: first, let them into the country; second, granted them resident alien status; and third, at least with Dzhokhar, granted naturalization? How many bites at the apple do the folks charged with administering our immigration and citizenship laws get before they prove that they can adequately screen out people who are ideologically and otherwise unfit to be here? And, in our post-9/11 world, don't you wonder how it is that the FBI doesn't appear to have been sharing with their immigration brethren the concerns raised by the Russians? What happened to "connecting the dots" and information sharing?

The thing is, I don't take for granted that it's easy to pick out who intends harm, or who will radicalize as he finds himself a stranger in a strange land, incapable of assimilating. As I noted in a prior Backgrounder for the Center ("Upholding the Value of Our Citizenship: National Security Threats Should Be Denaturalized", January 2013): "There is no doubt that detecting terrorists and spies among the population of naturalized American citizens is … a needle-in-the-haystack proposition." But as I also observed, "Unfortunately, the larger the haystack, the harder it is to find the needle. In our country's case, it is huge. In the decade from federal fiscal years 2001 to 2011, over 6.5 million aliens were naturalized."

If our homeland security authorities are not capable of finding the threats to our public safety and national security — and clearly they are not, as the paper I mention above and as this case so poignantly points out — why are we continuing to bring in, and then indiscriminately naturalize, hundreds of thousands of people each year? This seems to me to be an unnecessary and self-inflicted wound.

What is more, the government that shows itself so eager to give away our most precious possession is distinctly loathe to take it away through denaturalization, even after the evidence (literally) becomes overwhelming that someone did not deserve the gift. Let's see what they do in Dzhokhar's case. The nation is watching.