WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An already contentious immigration bill became the lightning rod for more controversy on Friday when a senior Republican U.S. senator linked the measure to the hunt in Massachusetts for a suspected Boston Marathon bomber.
"Given the events of this week, it is important for us to understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system," Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa said.
Grassley, an opponent of past immigration proposals in Congress, was speaking at the start of a congressional hearing on legislation unveiled earlier this week that would give 11 million people living illegally in the United States a chance at citizenship.
As the hearing got under way, much of the city of Boston and surrounding areas were under lockdown amid a police search for a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings that killed three and injured 176 people near the finish line of the famous foot race.
The suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, went to public school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Boston, but originally is from a Russian province that borders on Chechnya.
His older brother, who also was a suspect in the bombing, was killed overnight by police.
"How can we beef up security checks on people who enter the United States? How do we ensure that people who wish to do us harm are ineligible for benefits under immigration laws, including this new bill before us," said Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Following the hearing, committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, was asked about Grassley's comments and whether they could impede progress on the immigration bill that Democrats want to pass in the Senate sometime in June.
Referring to past domestic attacks, Leahy responded: "If we change the policies of this country every time something happens, whether it's Oklahoma City, 9/11 or this, we're never going to do anything. We should think about what are the best policies for the United States and use those."
Law enforcement officials were investigating the immigration status of the two Russian-born brothers.
PLEA FOR RESTRAINT
During the Senate hearing, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York, a leading proponent of the comprehensive immigration bill introduced this week, said: "I'd like to ask that all of us not jump to conclusions regarding events in Boston or try to equate those events with this legislation."
Schumer added, "In general we are a safer country when law enforcement knows who is here, has their fingerprints, photos, etcetera, has the background checks" on foreigners in the United States.
The immigration bill, which was written by four Republican and four Democratic senators, would also spend about $6.5 billion more on border security and put other measures in place to clamp down on companies hiring illegal workers while also imposing stricter methods of tracking those who enter and leave the United States.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, is one of the sponsors of the legislation, which has made him the target of attacks by some conservatives, despite his Tea Party backing when he was first elected to the Senate in 2010.
On Friday, conservative political commentator Ann Coulter referred to the killing of one of the Boston bombers, writing in a tweet: "It's too bad Suspect Number One won't be able to be legalized by Marco Rubio now."
Alex Conant, a Rubio spokesman, said there are "legitimate policy questions to ask and answer about what role our immigration system played, if any, in what happened" in Boston.
But he added, "Americans will reject any attempt to tie the terrorists responsible for the attacks in Boston with the millions of decent, law-abiding immigrants currently living in the U.S. and those hoping to immigrate here in the future."
(Editing by Karey Van Hall and Eric Walsh)
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