Marco Rubio, Steve King Square Off On Whether Boston Bombs Should Refocus Immigration Debate

Rep. Steve King, one of the most vocal proponents in Congress for strict immigration enforcement, called on his colleagues to slow down on moving ahead with plans to overhaul the system in the aftermath of the Boston bombing.

In an interview with The National Review, a conservative publication, King, a Republican from Iowa, said the reports that investigators were talking to a Saudi college student should prompt lawmakers to put a greater national security focus on immigration reform.

The effort by King, as well as some conservative groups, to tie the bombing to immigration drew a rebuke by his fellow Republican, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who is playing a key role in putting together a reform measure.

Rubio is part of a bipartisan group in the U.S. Senate that had been set to hold a press conference Tuesday morning to unveil a sweeping immigration reform bill. The unveiling has been pushed back to Wednesday because of the explosions during the Boston Marathon that killed three and injured nearly 180. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., met with President Obama on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the bill.

“Some of the speculation that has come out is that yes, it was a foreign national and, speculating here, that it was potentially a person on a student visa,” King said. “If that’s the case, then we need to take a look at the big picture.”

“We need to be ever vigilant,” said King, who was vice chairman of the House Subcommittee on Immigration. “We need to go far deeper into our border crossings. . . . We need to take a look at the visa-waiver program and wonder what we’re doing. If we can’t background-check people that are coming from Saudi Arabia, how do we think we are going to background check the 11 to 20 million people that are here from who knows where?”

U.S. law enforcement officials said that the Saudi national mentioned in new reports was a witness, not a suspect. He is recuperating at a Boston hospital, is in his 20s and is in the United States on a Saudi scholarship to study at a university in the Boston area, according to published reports.

Rep. Peter King, a Republican from New York who is no relation to Steve King, speculated that the bombing was the work of an organized group, such as an Al Qaeda affiliate or a white supremacist group.

Rubio told reporters on Tuesday that it was irresponsible to make assumptions about immigrants and the Boston bombing.

“We should really be very cautious about using language that links these two things in any way,” he said.  “We know very little about Boston other than that it was obviously an act of terror. We don’t know who carried it out or why they carried it out, and I would caution everyone to be very careful about linking the two.”

New York state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, a Democrat, accused Steve King of using the tragedy to imperil proposals to offer undocumented immigrants a pathway to legalization. The Senate proposal includes extensively bolstering border security as well as giving the nation’s estimated 11 undocumented immigrants a chance to legalize as long as they pay taxes, pay fines and stay out of trouble.

Many Republicans who once were firmly against a pathway to legalizing undocumented immigrants have said they support the parts of the Senate bipartisan plan that have been leaked.

“Congressman King is cynically exploiting a national tragedy to sabotage the best chance at immigration reform we’ve seen in decades,” Espaillat said, “and keep millions of patriotic immigrants from achieving citizenship. He should apologize immediately to the hard-working, tax-paying immigrants that have come to our country to ensure a better life for their families.”

“Tragedies like the attack that occurred in Boston should bring us together, and remind us of how much we have in common regardless of our beliefs. But Congressman King has shamefully used this moment to demagogue the immigrant and Latino community.”

In 2001, just days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush was considering expanding a temporary worker program which would have allowed Mexicans living illegally in the United States to gain permanent legal residency. Bush had been working on a framework of principles addressing immigrants from Mexico with Vicente Fox, who was president of Mexico then.

But the efforts came to halt after the attacks, and the spotlight they put on the ability of many of the hijackers to obtain visas to enter the country, and to overstay those visas.

The attacks led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and to the reorganization of federal immigration divisions, which then were moved from the Department of Justice to the DHS. 

Over the years, particularly after the recession, the economic and border security elements of immigration reform gradually eclipsed terrorism and national security as driving engines.

Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.