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White House: Boston attacks must not halt immigration reform

People hold a moment of silence near the Boston Marathon finish line on April 22, 2013 in Medford, Massachusetts
People hold a moment of silence near the Boston Marathon finish line on April 22, 2013 in Medford, Massachusetts. The White House warned Monday that attacks on the Boston marathon should not derail momentum towards immigration reform, President Barack Oba

The White House warned Monday that the deadly Boston Marathon attacks should not derail momentum towards immigration reform, as US lawmakers clashed over linking the two issues.

Tensions flared at a Senate hearing on immigration amid suspicion that the measure's opponents, aware that the two suspected perpetrators of last week's bombings were of Chechen origin and were living legally in the United States, might seek to use the attack to thwart the drive for change.

Asked whether the aftermath of the Boston blasts could slow momentum behind a Senate effort to pass comprehensive new immigration laws, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: "I would simply say that it should not."

"One of the positive effects and one of the reasons why we need comprehensive immigration reform is because it will enhance, when implemented, our national security," he said.

A comprehensive plan that brings out of the shadows the roughly 11 million US residents who are living in the country illegally would be President Barack Obama's best shot at a big second-term legacy achievement.

The Senate bill, negotiated by four Democrats and four 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.

Suspects Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, and his brother Tamerlan, 26, had lived in the United States for over a decade before the bombings.

The older brother, killed after a shootout with police last week, was a US resident who had applied, but not yet been granted US citizenship, reports said.

His younger brother, who is under armed guard in a Boston hospital, became a US citizen last September 11.

The link between immigration and Boston became a flashpoint in a Judiciary Committee hearing Friday 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, Grassley linked the Boston terrorist attacks and immigration policy by saying lawmakers should study whether the suspects exploited "weaknesses" in the law.

Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa, 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 200.

But some Republicans outside the "Gang of Eight" senators who crafted the bill and unveiled it last week have expressed support for moving ahead.

"If anything I would say this (attack in Boston) is an argument for modernizing our immigration laws," House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, last year's failed Republican vice presidential nominee, told reporters in Chicago after a speech on immigration.

The reform faces a tough test from opponents who warn granting legal status to undocumented immigrants equates to amnesty.

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."

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.

"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."

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