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US senators said Monday that fixing the immigration system would help prevent future terror attacks, and warned it would be "cruel" to exploit the Boston bombings as a reason for delaying reform efforts.
Lawmakers in a Judiciary Committee hearing clashed over linking the attack to stronger immigration enforcement, as the Senate considers a landmark bipartisan immigration plan that puts 11 million undocumented migrants on a path to US citizenship
Judiciary chairman Patrick Leahy led Democrats' declarations that the bill would increase security by tightening borders and enhancing entry and exit data.
"Let no one be so cruel as to use the heinous acts of two young men last week to derail the dreams and futures of millions of hardworking people," Leahy said at the outset of a lengthy hearing.
"A nation as strong as ours can welcome the oppressed and persecuted without making compromises on our security."
The bill, negotiated in secret by four Senate Democrats and four Senate Republicans, would require dramatic improvements to security along the nation's southern border with Mexico demonstrated over a 10-year period before any illegal immigrant can apply for a permanent residency green card.
But the issue became a flashpoint in the hearing when Democrat Chuck Schumer appeared to try to caution "those who are pointing to what happened, the terrible tragedy in Boston as, I would say, an excuse for not doing a bill or delaying it many months or years."
"I never said that!" boomed Senate Republican Chuck Grassley, who earlier had questioned the merits of some of the bill's security measures.
On Friday, during the first of at least three scheduled immigration hearings over the coming days, Grassley linked the Boston terrorist attacks and the nation's immigration policies by saying lawmakers should study whether the suspects exploited "weaknesses" in the law.
Congressman Steve King of Iowa, a Republican and tea party favorite, had been more direct, telling the National Journal last week that the country should not rush to immigration reform, especially in the wake of the Boston attack which killed three people and wounded 180.
Schumer and Leahy both said they welcomed the introduction of amendments during the mark up process that would improve the underlying immigration legislation.
"If there are things that come up as a result of what happened in Boston that require improvement, let's add them to the bill," Schumer said.
"Certainly, our bill tightens up things in a way that would make a Boston less likely -- the changes in the exit-entry system of visas, the requiring of 11 million people here to register."
Republican Senator Marco Rubio, one of the bill's chief architects and a possible 2016 presidential candidate, walked a delicate line between those arguing in the hearing.
"I disagree with those who say that the terrorist attack in Boston has no bearing on the immigration debate," he said in a statement.
"Any immigration reform we pursue should make our country safer and more secure," he said, as he called for additional hearings.
"If there are flaws in our immigration system that were exposed by the attack in Boston, any immigration reform passed by Congress this year should address those flaws."