Boston Bombings Ignite Senate Debate on Immigration Reform

Senators, dubbed the "Gang of Eight," hold a news conference on immigration legislation.
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Senators, dubbed the "Gang of Eight," hold a news conference on immigration legislation.

As the full identities and motives of the two foreign-born bombing suspects unfold, both sides of the immigration debate are seizing the Boston attack as an opportunity to revamp America's immigration system.

"The right will use this as red meat to derail immigration reform," said Michael Wildes, a former federal prosecutor and managing partner of the immigration law firm Wildes & Weinberg. "But we shouldn't allow any one incident to derail the challenges that we have to protect our homeland, and make sure we fix our broken system and redefine our economy through quality immigration policy," he said.

Meanwhile, supporters of a new bipartisan immigration bill hope the bombings don't thwart America's long-awaited need for reform. Advocates include tech sector employers, who are desperate to lure and retain highly-skilled international workers.

The bombing suspects — one killed and one captured — are brothers of Chechen origin, at least one a legal permanent resident of the United States, law enforcement officials told NBC News.

"It's very unfortunate when a person commits a crime of this magnitude. This is a horrible tragedy," said Debra Lattanzi Shutika, an immigration expert and associate professor at George Mason University. "Crimes are going to be committed, we understand that. But that doesn't mean we can't have an immigration debate and move forward," she said.

(Read more : Tsarnaev Social Posts Should Have Been Flagged: Expert)

Senator: Attack Should Factor in Debate

On Friday, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, jumped into the fray, saying the Boston bombings should be a factor in the immigration discussion, NBC News reported.

Given the events of last week, "it's important for us to understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system," said Grassley, a ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "While we don't yet know the immigration status of the people who have terrorized the communities in Massachusetts, when we find out it will help shed light on the weaknesses of our system," he said.

'Gang of Eight' Proposal

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of four Republicans and four Democrats, known as the "Gang of Eight," is moving ahead with a new immigration bill that was released last week. The bill was conceived as a pathway to legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Proposed reforms include visas for foreign-born entrepreneurs, who want launch start-ups; and merit-based visas to help keep highly talented employees in the U.S.

(Read More: Why Immigration Reform May Happen This Year)

E-Verify Program

There's also a proposed e-verify program, an electronic employment verification system. Employers would have to check the immigration status of potential new employees before offering them jobs.

"There will be penalties for employers, who knowingly hire someone who is in this country illegally," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told CNBC last week. "Forty percent of the people, who are in this country illegally didn't cross our borders. They came and overstayed their visas," McCain said.

(Read More: Boston Marathon Attack Could Impede 'Gang of 8' ImmigrationBill)

Key Unanswered Questions About Attack

Many unanswered questions remain about the bombings including whether terrorist groups overseas aided in the attack.

On Friday, NBC News reported terror suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev flew in and out of John F. Kennedy Airport last year and was out of the country for 6 months. Investigators said they want to know if Tsarnaev received any terror training while he was overseas, according to NBC News. Tsarnaev was killed amid a shootout with police in Watertown, Mass. The younger brother Dzhokhar was captured Friday after a massive manhunt.

On Monday, suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was charged with using a weapon of mass destruction — and the White House said he will be tried in a civilian court, NBC News reported.

(Read more from NBC News: 7 Biggest Unanswered Questions Over Boston Marathon Bombings)

McCain also told CNBC the bill includes provisions to beef up electronic monitoring of foreigners, entering and exiting the U.S. "Our bill tightens that up. We're going to require e-verify documentation that someone is here legally," McCain said. "But also, more importantly, exit as well as entry checking on everybody who enters and leaves this country."

Some Immigration Rulebreakers Get Ahead

A recent survey from the National Association for the Self-Employed showed members are willing to comply with the new immigration rules. The group includes the self-employed and micro businesses.

"We must work towards a fair, balanced, and sensible approach to modernizing our immigration system," said Katie Vlietstra, director of government relations for the association or NASE. "This should include simple and efficient verification systems for small-business owners to verify the validity of a potential employee to work legally in this country," she said.

Hiring illegal immigrants has been a hidden practice among some small-business owners, who pay ineligible workers less and save on taxes, the AP has reported. And small businesses that follow the law find it difficult to compete with companies that hire immigrants, who aren't authorized to work in the U.S. because of the costs.

Sixty-eight percent of business owners surveyed last month by the advocacy group, Small Business Majority, said too many companies gain an unfair advantage by hiring immigrants who aren't eligible to work in the U.S.

(Read More: Small Business Rulebreakers Get Competitive Edge)

The "Gang of Eight" bill may brought to the Senate floor in late May or early June, Sen. Chuck Schumer, (D-NY), told CNBC last week.

The FBI release photos of the suspected Boston Marathon bombings.
Source: FBI
The FBI release photos of the suspected Boston Marathon bombings.

Immigration Reform Key to Economy

Even before the bombings, building a coalition behind U.S. immigration reform has been a struggle. And without political consensus on the issue, technology start-ups in particular have felt the pains of limited works visas. They've also absorbed the high legal fees associated with the visa process — costs that few cash-strapped upstarts can afford.

(Read More: How Lack of Immigration Reform Harms Start-Ups, US Economy)

Beyond the tech sector, the "Gang of Eight" bill would establish new guest worker programs of low-skilled workers in farming, construction and other trades, and increase the number of skilled workers who can obtain visas.

"We can't forget people who come here to do unskilled work — pack our meat, work on our farms, grow our vegetables. These people are not skilled workers but they are essential to our economic prosperity," said Shutika of George Mason. "We've waited too many decades to have this conversation," she said.

(Read More: Complete Coverage of the Boston Marathon Bombing)

NBC News, Reuters and AP contributed to this report.

By CNBC's Heesun Wee; Follow her on Twitter @heesunwee