Minutes before 3 p.m. Monday, I spoke with sources in D.C. who told me excitedly that the Senate immigration reform bill would be released as planned midday Tuesday. An hour later, as video of the deadly Boston Marathon bombing coursed on cable television and reports emerged that one of the dead was an 8 year old child, those same sources began to wonder if the bill would be derailed.
“This could knock it all down,” said one Beltway advocate.
Senate aides tell USA Today that the bill will still be filed today, and the so-called Gang of Eight Senators who negotiated its details will delay their press conference describing it until Wednesday.
But the anxieties some immigration reform advocates felt following the Boston explosions is understandable. It would not be the first time that a massive push for reform crumbled under the weight of an act of violence. The attacks on September 11, 2001, came just days after President George W. Bush affirmed his commitment to a grand bargain on immigration. In the attack’s aftermath, in a country filled with fears about sovereignty and outsiders, hope faded for an opening of national lines.
After yesterday’s explosions, all three major cable news networks showed little restraint in stirring viewers’ passions about the violence. Several anchors and guests made repeated connections where none yet exist. On CNN, commentator David Gergen dropped the word “jihadist” little more than an hour after the attack. Former U.S. Rep. Jane Harman simultaneously fed and tamed the flames, saying, “A lot the victims, if it turns out to be anything related to Al Qaeda, a lot of the victims of these attacks are Muslims.”
By 5 p.m., the New York Post threw up on its homepage, “Suspect ID’d As Saudi National.” The headline remained even as spokespeople for the city of Boston repeated on camera that they had named no suspects and that the reports to the contrary were wrong. By 6 p.m., Saudi and Muslim were trending terms on Twitter in the U.S. This morning, the New York Times reported that a Saudi national, who is in the U.S. on a student visa, was among the people injured in the blast and questioned at the hospital. Officials stressed the man was unknown to federal terrorism officials and no one is in custody.
President Obama issued a short statement of caution. “We still do not know who did this or why and people should not jump to conclusions,” he said.
But in the post-9/11 United States, conclusions about dangerous foreigners are precisely the kind we’re trained to make. “What’s your instinct right now on the person who did this or people: domestic or foreign,” CNN’s Erin Burnett asked former Bush national security advisor Frances Townsend.
“Multiple simultaneous explosion at a big public event would suggest to many that it could be an Al Qaeda or a foreign terrorist,” Townsend replied. “I really do think we’ve got to be cautious. It’s too early to tell,” she added.
Yesterday was Patriot’s Day, the anniversary of both the Branch Davidian compound seige in Waco, Texas, and the Oklahoma City bombing, violence carried out entirely by white, U.S. citizens. It’s well known that after 9/11, federal immigration and domestic surveillance laws calcified under the newly formed Department of Homeland Security. But even when attacks are carried out by U.S. citizens, the federal government’s policy response tends to target immigrants.
Reacting to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Congress in 1996 passed a pair of bills, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Individual Responsibility Act and the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Together, the laws withdrew protections for immigrants facing immigration enforcement. Rates of deportation began the steady rise.
The current immigration reform legislation, which may still make its way into public view today, appeared yesterday primed to turn the country away from that hardline. Other forms of post-9/11 government overreach also appear to be cracking. The NYPD spying program, for example, after it was exposed by the Associated Press in 2011, is facing lawsuits and the possible independent oversight. Meanwhile, dozens of detainees held in Guantanamo are on a hunger strike widely reported to be the largest act of resistance to their indefinite confinement.
But momentum of this kind can turn with haste. In early 2001, President Bush was primed for a major push for immigration reform, a promise he made when running for office that most believed he intended to keep. He’d famously made friends with Mexican President Vicente Fox and the two leaders had established a bilateral Working Group on Migration to find an agreement on immigration fixes.
On September 6, Bush and Fox met to affirm their commitment to work together. Five days later, chances for immigration reform were shot, and a decade later, President Obama’s administration was deporting record numbers of people. A lot can change in one act of violence.
This article has been updated since publication.