Immigration scholar at University of Minnesota worries Boston bombings will derail reform plans


“In the beginning, I was just hoping it wasn’t an immigrant.’’

Those are the words of Katherine Fennelly, professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and an expert on immigration and public policy, reacting to the revelation last week that the two Chechen suspects in the Boston bombings came to the United States from Kyrgyzstan and were granted asylum here.

Buried under the shadow of recent tragic events in Boston is the fear by Fennelly and others that the bombings and murders might derail or delay immigration reform.

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Does what happened in Boston reflect badly on immigrants in general and on the immigration-reform proposal in the U.S. Senate in particular?

Could that “foreigner” or “immigrant” label spark widespread anti-immigrant sentiment and actions, as happened in 2001 following 9/11?

There are signs that the events in Boston are changing the discussion. Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul and a bevy of conservative critics called this week to put the brakes on the proposed changes in immigration laws.

In response, proponents of immigration reform, including members of both political parties, argue the makeover would enhance national security.

But Fennelly doesn’t think that questions of assimilation and immigration status are relevant in the Boston case. The heinous bombings at the finish line of the iconic race, she says, are more similar to the horrendous shootings at the Aurora theater in Colorado or at schools around the country.

“To me what motivated it and why is not likely to have much to do with being an immigrant or being assimilated or not assimilated as much as something else we don’t understand well — certain psychological triggers or barriers to close relationships” that have appeared in other mass, unprovoked killings, Fennelly says.

Ruslan Tsarni, uncle of the two suspects, seemed to consider the accused different from most immigrants. Speaking in heavily accented English from his Washington, D.C., area home, Tsarni called his nephews “losers” and praised the United States for giving immigrants from all over the world a shot at success.

Tsarni accused his nephews of not being able to fit into American society and of having “hatred toward those being able to settle themselves.’’

Immigrants assimilate faster

Fennelly, who has long studied and written about immigrants in the United States and policies surrounding their status, has made a case many times over about the value of foreign peoples to this country. She further stresses that most immigrants of the 21st century learn English and in other ways assimilate faster than did those of the 20th century.

Just look at the measures of assimilation, she says: home ownership, median income, educational attainment. In Minnesota, many of the children and grandchildren of rural, impoverished, non-literate Hmong refugees, she says, are now college graduates, graduate students or working in professional jobs.

Though foreign-born persons make up 7 percent of the Minnesota population, they make up the majority of growth in the labor force in this state where demographics show large numbers of baby boomers beginning to retire.

She argues in her 2010 report, “The Economic Impact of Immigrants in Minnesota,’’ that “immigration stimulates job creation,’’ citing this nugget: “Immigration-owned businesses generated $331 million in net income to Minnesota in 2000.’’

From that report, written with Anne Huart: “Our general conclusion is that they constitute an important resource to the nation and to the state, as a result of their entrepreneurial activity, consumer spending, tax payments, participation in the labor force and their less tangible, but no less important contributions to the social and cultural diversity of Minnesota.”

Fennelly is hopeful that because of broad support — business, labor unions, faith-based groups and the general public — Congress will still enact comprehensive immigration reform this year. “I still think it’s likely,’’ she says.

But it’s not clear that will happen, and since I talked to Fennelly, Tea Party favorite Rand has sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, asking:

“Why did the current system allow two individuals to immigrate to the United States from the Chechen Republic in Russia, an area known as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, who then committed acts of terrorism? Were there any safeguards? Could this have been prevented? Does the immigration reform before us address this?”

These aren’t bad questions, of course. But in time, after the emotions of the moment quiet, another question needs to be asked: How would derailing the legislation fix our current dysfunctional immigration system?