Federal files leave questions about Marathon bomber, friend
Government says it handled their immigration cases properly; files are heavily edited
Tamerlan Tsarnaev passed the US citizenship test three months before he and his younger brother detonated two bombs at the Boston Marathon, according to federal immigration records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
His test results, with correct answers to questions about slavery, the Constitution, and the Louisiana Purchase, are in 651 pages of previously confidential files on the bomber and his friend Ibragim Todashev. Both men were killed in separate incidents after the April 15, 2013, bombings.
The Department of Homeland Security provided redacted files to The Boston Globe after multiple requests spanning three years. Only 206 pages were released in their entirety, so it remains unclear why the government granted the friends legal residency and put them on the path toward US citizenship.
But the records show that months before the bombings, Tsarnaev went to the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston, swore his allegiance to the United States, and denied any links to terrorism. The records also show that Todashev told immigration officials he had left Massachusetts in September 2011, the same month he allegedly helped Tsarnaev kill three men in Waltham.
Until now, the government had declined to release the files, citing ongoing criminal investigations. But the mystery stirred debate about why immigration officials granted Tsarnaev and Todashev refuge in the first place, and whether officials missed warning signs about their criminal activity as their cases progressed through US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
On Sunday, the agency issued a statement saying the cases were processed correctly.
“US Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) commitment to national security is shared inside and outside of the Department of Homeland Security,” it said.
“While USCIS found no errors in the processing of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s or Ibragim Todashev’s applications, we are always seeking to strengthen our very intensive screening processes,” the statement said.
Tamerlan, 26, died in a firefight with police after the bombings killed three people and injured more than 260. The brothers also killed a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer.
A month later, an FBI agent killed Todashev during an interrogation in Florida.
Tsarnaev’s younger brother Dzhokhar, 22, a naturalized US citizen, was sentenced to death last year after a federal trial and is appealing from prison in Colorado.
If federal officials raised security concerns about Tamerlan Tsarnaev or Todashev, they did not disclose them in the heavily redacted immigration files. Instead, the files sketch a portrait of Tsarnaev and Todashev, both ethnic Chechens from Russia, as men struggling with unemployment and poverty while trying to cement their ties to the United States, Tsarnaev through citizenship and Todashev through a green card. They had so little income that the government waived their immigration application fees, officials said.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev came to America as a teenager in 2003, after securing a visa in Turkey. His family had bounced between Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Dagestan in southern Russia before settling in Cambridge.
In August 2012, after a 178-day trip to Russia, Tsarnaev stopped by the Cambridge office of Centro Latino, a now-defunct nonprofit, for help in applying for citizenship. He did not stand out; the organization helped hundreds of immigrants of all backgrounds fill out the forms every year.
“It was really nonincidental,” said a person who used to work at the center and who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He waited in line like everybody else.”
In his application, Tsarnaev wrote that he wanted to change his first name to that of an early Islamic scholar, Muaz — a move critics later said should have spurred the government to investigate further. He also disclosed a 2009 arrest for assaulting a former girlfriend, and that he was receiving government benefits and had recently traveled overseas.
On Jan. 23, 2013, immigration officer David McCormack interviewed Tsarnaev and tested his English and knowledge of US history and government. He answered six civics questions correctly to pass: He knew that Africans had been slaves, that there are 27 constitutional amendments, and that the United States bought Louisiana from the French in 1803. He also identified “Joe Biden” as the vice president, said Congress makes federal laws, and that the colonists fought the British over “high taxes.” He correctly read a question about voting and wrote the answer: “Citizens can vote.”
His sole error was to say that the federal court, and not the Supreme Court, is the highest court in the United States.
Afterward, the immigration officer checked the box next to the sentence that said: “You passed the tests of English and US history and government.”
But instead of marking the box that said, “Congratulations! Your application has been recommended for approval,” the officer checked the next box, which said, “A decision cannot yet be made about your application.”
Reasons for the delay are unclear in the file provided to the Globe. Earlier, a federal report had said that Tsarnaev’s citizenship application was delayed because the government did not have his criminal court records from the 2009 case.
But those records are in the file provided to the Globe. Homeland Security confirmed on Sunday that records in the file obtained by the Globe show that Tsarnaev furnished those records to the immigration officer and that the officer had recommended him for citizenship, pending a supervisor’s review because of his criminal history.
All that stood between him and US citizenship was a supervisor’s approval, which was required, and a final swearing-in ceremony.
Todashev’s file shows he applied for a green card twice. He received asylum shortly after arriving in the United States in 2008 from Russia. The file shows he lived in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Massachusetts, staying in Chelsea, Watertown, Cambridge, and finally Allston before moving to Florida.
In May 2011, a top immigration official in Atlanta, Paul Onyango, denied his green card application because Todashev had not provided court records from a criminal road-rage incident in Boston. The official said he would not refer Todashev for deportation, however, which Homeland Security said was typical in such situations.
The next year, Todashev tried again. He was issued a green card on Feb. 5, 2013, according to Homeland Security. But shortly after the bombings, a top immigration official sent the Boston immigration office a memo titled “withholding of adjudication” — suggesting a shift in his case.
The reason is unclear, because the record is redacted.