WASHINGTON -- The divide within the Republican Party over immigration policies was on full view Monday, as top party leaders made a case for overhauling the laws even as conservative senators argued that the Boston bombings showed the need to go slow.
Momentum appeared to be on the side of those seeking an overhaul. They have amassed an unusually robust alliance of business, labor and faith leaders that on Monday included the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who said "now is the time" to fix the immigration system.
Within the GOP, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, signaled support for the overhaul effort. And one of the party's most influential thinkers, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the 2012 vice-presidential nominee, publicly took on a role as an advocate of change.
Mr. Boehner, interviewed on Fox News, was asked about the impact the Boston bombings might have on the debate. "Primarily, I'm in the camp of, if we fix our immigration system, it may actually help us understand who all's here, why they're here and what legal status they have," he said.
Mr. Ryan took a similar stance. "If anything, this is an argument for modernizing our immigration laws," he said, standing alongside a leading proponent of overhaul, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., after a joint appearance at the City Club of Chicago.
"We need it for national security reasons. We need it for the economy. We have an opportunity to have a real long-term solution," Mr. Ryan said. "We do not want to have a society where we have different classes of people who cannot reach their American dream by not being a full citizen."
The Boehner and Ryan statements are important because House Republicans have so far seemed more resistant to the idea of a comprehensive immigration overhaul than their Senate counterparts. Few House Republicans represent districts with sizable immigrant populations. The Senate is to take up the immigration bill later this spring, and supporters hope that it will pass there with a large majority, putting pressure on the House to act.
Even in the Senate, however, Republicans remain divided, with a significant group opposed to the overhaul proposals. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., an influential voice in the GOP's Tea Party wing, said security questions arising from the immigration path of the Boston bombing suspects must be answered before Congress moves forward on the bill.
The two suspected bombers, brothers of Chechen origins, emigrated from Russia as youngsters a decade ago. Their family sought political asylum. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, who was naturalized as a U.S. citizen on Sept. 11, 2012, remains hospitalized following the police pursuit. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died last week after a shootout with police, had a citizenship application pending.
"Why did the current system allow two individuals to immigrate to the United States from the Chechen Republic in Russia, an area known as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, who then committed acts of terrorism?" Mr. Paul said in a letter to the Senate leadership. His statement incorrectly recounted the migration route of the Tsarnaev family, who did not live in Chechnya.
In addition, Senate Judiciary Committee conservatives engaged in a heated exchange Monday with Democrats over the immigration bill. Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the panel's senior Republican, shouted in protest when Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., singled out those "who were 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!" Mr. Grassley interjected. "I never said that!"
"I didn't say you did, sir," Mr. Schumer replied.
"I didn't say anything about delaying the bill," insisted Mr. Grassley, staring across the dais to Mr. Schumer.
Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who pounded his gavel to restore order, said linking the Boston bombings to the overhaul effort "troubled" him.