Skip to main content

Don't blame immigration for Boston bombings

By Edward Alden, Special to CNN
updated 7:20 PM EDT, Fri April 19, 2013
Sen. Chuck Grassley, right, said Friday that the suspects' background raises concerns about immigrant screening.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, right, said Friday that the suspects' background raises concerns about immigrant screening.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • After Boston suspects ID'd, politicians start blaming immigration system
  • Alden: Perfect screening is impossible and wouldn't have prevented the bombings
  • The U.S. can't shield itself with better screening or by keeping immigrants out
  • We need immigration reform, but must be realistic about what it can and can't do

Editor's note: Edward Alden in a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of "The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11" (Harper, 2009).

(CNN) -- It took only hours after the identities of the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing were revealed for some politicians and commentators to suggest that the tragedy was somehow the fault of a broken immigration system.

Ever since September 11, there has been a strong and understandable desire for a perfect screening system for would-be immigrants. If only the United States could put that system into place, bad people would never be admitted to the country. But such perfection is unachievable, and would not have prevented the Boston attacks. It would be a further tragedy to allow sensible overhaul of the U.S. immigration system to be derailed by such misperceptions.

Here's what we know so far. The two brothers suspected in the bombings, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, were brought to the United States by their parents in 2002, likely from the former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan. That means one was a child and the other in his early teens when they moved to Boston.

Edward Alden
Edward Alden

The younger brother became a U.S. citizen last year and the older brother held a green card. The family was originally from Chechnya, a region that has long resisted Russian rule, and where the mostly Muslim Chechens have been fighting for independence from the Russian government of Vladimir Putin, and have carried out attacks again Russian civilians.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Could the two have been stopped by immigration controls? The immigrant and visitor screening systems created by the U.S. government after 9/11 are designed to identify people whose history gives cause for concern. Consular officers and Department of Homeland Security officials check names against long terrorist watch lists and search for criminal records.

Those with suspicious travel histories -- to places such as Afghanistan or Yemen -- are subject to extra scrutiny. Secure passports and the fingerprints taken from all new arrivals help prevent fraud. The database also includes records of fingerprints lifted by the U.S. military and intelligence from battlefields and safe houses in Afghanistan, Iraq and other terrorist hot spots.

All these systems make the United States far more secure than it was a decade ago against those with terrorist or criminal histories. They do nothing, however, to protect us against the children of immigrants who might later become radicalized. Like Britain after the 2005 London subway bombings, which were committed largely by young, second-generation immigrants, the United States can no longer think this is only a foreign problem. Radicalism can find fertile ground at home as well as overseas.

Does that mean the Boston attacks have nothing at all to do with immigration? That would not be a reasonable conclusion either.

King: Suspected bombers' parents 'wrong'
McCain: I can get the immigration votes
For immigrants, wait for reform is scary

A country that opens itself to immigrants, as the United States has for many decades, invites in both the goods and ills of the world. Boston, for instance, is a city teeming with bright foreign students, many of whom will go on to make great contributions to the United States. Indeed, one of the victims of Monday's bombing was Lingzi Lu, a Boston University math and statistics graduate student from Shenyang, China, who often told her friends how much she loved Boston.

But immigration also brings with it the disputes of other cultures. In 1985, when I was living in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada -- a city that abounds with Asian immigrants -- an Air India flight from Montreal to Delhi was blown up over the Atlantic Ocean, killing 268 Canadians, 27 Britons and 24 Indians.

The architects were Sikh extremists who had emigrated from India to Canada and were fighting for causes of which few Canadians had ever heard. The two-decade long investigation that followed was traumatic for Canadians and for the many Indian immigrants with no ties to or cause with the radicals. But Canada moved on and remains a vibrant society that is largely welcoming of immigrants.

It is not yet clear what motivated the Tsarnaev brothers to allegedly detonate a pressure cooker filled with explosives, nails and ball bearings at the finish line of one of the greatest foot races in the world. Both could well have become caught up in the extremism that has roiled too much of the Islamic world and caused others to carry out horrifying, senseless attacks against the innocent. Or they may have had other dark reasons.

But what is certain is that the United States cannot shield itself by closing its doors to immigrants, or even by coming up with still better screening tools. This country needs and deserves a far better immigration system, which is the goal of the immigration effort under way. But we should be realistic about what it can and cannot do to protect us.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Edward Alden.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 6:48 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 4:49 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT