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Don't blame immigration

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will be tried in a civilian court for his alleged role in the Boston Marathon bombings. That is appropriate, and important. What is not appropriate is to use Tsarnaev's and his brother's foreign births as an excuse to derail or delay long-overdue immigration reform in Congress.

As is now typical in our wired, 24/7 world, the echo of the Boston blasts had barely died away before irresponsible people started speculating publicly about the mystery bombers' ethnicity and motives. When the two suspects' identities were revealed, the demagoguery quickly reached a fever pitch.

Even before Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., declared he should be held indefinitely by the military as an enemy combatant.

Tsarnaev will be tried in civilian court for one simple reason: He is an American citizen, naturalized last year. And he does not meet the legal definition of an enemy combatant.

Under the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, that designation requires that an individual have ties to "al-Qaida, the Taliban or associated forces engaged in hostilities with the United States or its coalition partners."

There is no evidence of that in Tsarnaev's case. Chechnya, his ethnic homeland, is hostile to Russia, not to the U.S., and investigators believe the brothers acted alone.

Neither does Tsarnaev's case have anything to do with immigration reform, despite the attempts of some to link the two.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said discussing the attack could help strengthen the immigration reform bill now being debated in Congress because "it will help shed light on the weaknesses in our system "… (and) how can we beef up security checks on people who would enter the United States."

Except that the two people believed responsible for the bombings entered the United States as children — legally — with their father, who then applied for asylum. What "security checks" should the government have performed on a boy of 8 or 9? That would be Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving brother who now stands accused of conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction against persons and property resulting in death.

Certainly immigration authorities should do everything possible to prevent anyone with ties to terrorism from gaining legal status as an immigrant — and they already do. In fact, the elder Tsarnaev's application for citizenship was put on hold because the FBI had questioned him about a trip he made to Russia.

But there was no reason to believe Dzhokhar Tsarnaev posed any specific threat — not in 2002, at age 8 or 9, and not last year, when he became a citizen.

There is no way to predict which immigrants might someday become radicalized, as the Tsarnaevs apparently did, or which might someday develop a mental illness that prompts them to commit mayhem. Even citizens from birth sometimes wreak havoc on their fellow Americans, as Timothy McVeigh did.

Someone seeking to become an American citizen is not more likely to commit atrocities simply by virtue of having been being born somewhere else. To suggest otherwise is, frankly, un-American.