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Real American Boy: How Our Byzantine Immigration System and Failed Economy May Have Made a Terrorist

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Posted on May 20, 2013

In this image taken from a video, an undated family photo provided by Patimat Suleimanova, the aunt of the Boston bombings suspects, shows Anzor Tsarnaev, left, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva holding Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Anzor’s brother, Mukhammad Tsarnaev.

By Susan Zakin

“I want you to think, Santosh. Washington is not Bombay. ... Will the Americans smoke with you? Will they sit and talk with you in the evenings? Will they hold you by the hand and walk with you beside the ocean?”

V.S. Naipaul, “In a Free State”

The story of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev even sounds like a boxing movie. The older brother a heavyweight fighter, talented but a shade too cocky. The volatile eldest son of struggling immigrants, he feels every defeat, each small, shaming moment that adds up to a father’s lost life. The younger son? That’s easy. He worships his older brother. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev needed a role model, a winner in a society that gives no quarter to losers.

So goes the storyline of a New York Times article about the two young men accused of the Boston Marathon bombings that killed three people and injured nearly 300. According to the Times, the plot turned in 2010. Tamerlan Tsarnaev had won the New England Golden Gloves championship for a second consecutive year. He was poised to compete for the national title, but that year, the Golden Gloves changed its rules to bar fighters who weren’t citizens.

So here’s the plot twist: Tamerlan Tsarnaev had waited for a full year after he was eligible before applying for citizenship. One can hardly blame him. Immigration requirements are a hassle, even if you’re a patient sort. By the time he got around to submitting his application, there were two red flags: an FBI investigation that reportedly yielded no evidence of terrorist ties, and an incident allegedly involving domestic abuse.

At 26, Tsarnaev’s boxing career was over. To borrow from a real boxing movie, he could have been a contender. Instead, a series of events closed that door, and, according to family, friends and acquaintances, turned him toward radical Islam.


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As debate over immigration reform played out in Washington, D.C., opponents brandished minor security glitches in the elder Tsarnaev brother’s record as a pretext for delaying S. 477, an 867-page bill that would thoroughly modernize the country’s immigration system. But if immigration debate in the U.S. wasn’t steeped in fear and identity politics, Tsarnaev’s story would have offered compelling arguments for passing reform—now.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s reaction to the difficulties his family encountered is his own, and no more a reflection of immigrants to the U.S. than mass killings by young American males wielding automatic weapons are of people born here. But the story of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his family reveals the situation faced by many immigrants to the U.S., a country offering less solace than it once did to the world’s huddled masses, let alone its own citizens.

If you’re a software engineer from Bangalore, the ride may be relatively smooth, and if Mark Zuckerberg’s well-funded immigration reform group succeeds, it will get even smoother. For others, the promised land turns out to be hell. That might sound like a familiar story too: the Cuban doctor waiting tables in Miami, the professor driving a cab. Or Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s father, Anzor, who went from being an official in the prosecutor’s office in Kyrgyzstan to working as an unlicensed mechanic in the back lot of a rug store in Cambridge, Mass.

What’s changed is the United States itself. Immigrants are struggling with the same problems as native-born Americans: stagnant wages, rising prices, unemployment or underemployment, and a health care system in perpetual crisis. In other words, they’re just like us, only without the long-standing ties to friends and family that many Americans have relied on as the economy spiraled downward.

That’s the real story behind the immigration reform fight that’s been playing out against the backdrop of deafening explosions, followed by parachutes of smoke and the shocked screams of the crowd.

It’s a truism verging on cliché: America has a schizophrenic attitude toward immigration. Send us your huddled masses, we say. But from the days when George Washington and Thomas Jefferson preached the virtues of isolationism, we have also been the country that executed Sacco and Vanzetti, turned away a boatload of Jews fleeing Hitler, and, more recently, tossed undocumented asylum seekers into solitary confinement. Our image of an immigrant is as Janus-faced as our attitude toward immigration itself: Horatio Alger with an accent or a welfare cheat. Now, a terrorist.

What isn’t as well known is how these attitudes shape our current immigration policy. The U.S. has the highest rate of immigration in the world, yet its system is both Byzantine and outdated, exacerbating the difficulties of integration for the 1 million people who migrate to the United States every year.

“The U.S. spends very little on immigrant assimilation,” said Michael Jones-Correa, a government professor at Cornell University. “Once immigrants are in the country they’re kind of on their own. The assumption is that once they’re in, they’ll make their own way and eventually become citizens. It’s a very laissez-faire approach.”

That laissez-faire approach is deeply embedded in America’s culture, according to Gary Weaver, a professor at American University and founder of its Intercultural Management Institute. Rooted in the 17th-century Calvinism of the British migrants who landed at Plymouth Rock, the U.S. ethos of self-sufficiency is a rarity among world cultures. Yet it flourished in what Weaver calls “the greenhouse environment” of 20th century America with its abundance of natural resources, limited population and a continually expanding economy.

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