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Fact-checking immigration: A year-end report

Immigration legislation would address border enforcement and people living in the United States illegally. Immigration legislation would address border enforcement and people living in the United States illegally.

Immigration legislation would address border enforcement and people living in the United States illegally.

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman January 2, 2014

Supporters of an immigration overhaul had high hopes that 2013 would be their year. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a GOP presidential contender and son of Cuban immigrants, helped lead a successful Senate vote in June. But the effort fizzled in the Republican-led House.

The issue could resurface next year, but for now, we can at least take stock of the factual claims of the 2013 immigration debate.

This year, PolitiFact examined claims on a wide range of topics, from visa statistics and border security to Internet claims that the Senate bill included free handouts of "MarcoPhones" and "Obamacars."

Here’s a look back at some of the highlights:

The Senate bill

• On April 14, Rubio appeared on seven Sunday talk shows a few days prior to the unveiling of the Senate bill, a move widely seen as a pre-emptive strike against a backlash by conservative opponents of an immigration overhaul. "This is not amnesty," Rubio said on Fox News Sunday. "Amnesty is the forgiveness of something. Amnesty is anything that says do it illegally, it will be cheaper and easier."

Rubio was corrected that the bill does not offer blanket legal residency to unauthorized immigrants. The bill mandates fines, background checks and waiting periods, and it’s tougher than its 1986 predecessor. But it also offers a measure of clemency to those immigrants, who would not be required to return to their home countries. We rated his statement Half True.

• Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, criticized the Senate bill for rewarding some seemingly random industries in the bill: "The Senate immigration bill is over 1,000 pages long; filled with things like: rewards for au pair agencies, Alaskan seafood processors and Vegas casinos; and does not even secure the border."

Those provisions were part of deals fought for by industry lobbyists and included to garner support for the bill. Whether that classifies them as "rewards" is a matter of opinion, but we rated her statement True.

• U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., claimed that as soon as illegal immigrants become voters, they will vote for Democrats and that the GOP could lose the House. "Because, I think the president, even by executive order, could again wave his magic wand before 2014 and he’d say, ‘Now, all of the new legal Americans are going to have voting rights,’ she said.

However, the Constitution says the states -- not the president or Congress -- determines who can vote for the House, Senate and presidency. We rated her statement Pants on Fire.

• Bloggers claimed the Senate bill would grant immigrants with work visas their own taxpayer-funded cell phones dubbed "MarcoPhones." The bill included grants aimed at helping American ranchers and others at risk of remote border violence get satellite phone service so they could be in touch with authorities. We rated the statement False.

• Bloggers (again) promoted the absurd notion that teenagers would get free cars — or motorcycles or scooters or other vehicles — under the immigration law. In reality, the Senate bill included a provision for a youth jobs program with transportation services. The type of transportation wasn’t specified, but it’s more likely that it would have been something such as bus passes. We rated this statement Pants on Fire.

Obama’s record

Throughout the debate about immigration reform, politicians made claims about President Barack Obama’s record on deportations and his executive power.

• As Rubio tried to get Congress to take up immigration reform, he warned in a radio interview, "I’ve been saying now I believe that this president will be tempted, if nothing happens in Congress, he will be tempted to issue an executive order like he did for the DREAM Act kids a year ago, where he basically legalizes 11 million people by the sign of a pen."

Most experts say that’s an extreme scenario and would invite legal challenges as well as a political backlash. More likely is that Obama could extend deferred action to additional subsets of the undocumented population, pushing them lower on the priority list. That might be relief for them, but it’s also a legal limbo that falls short of legalization. We rated Rubio’s statement Mostly False.

• Meanwhile, Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said that "President Obama has the most border patrols and border security deployed at the border of any previous president." Obama "has cracked down on employers who are attracting undocumented immigrants and hiring them more than any previous president." We gave Wasserman Schultz, a South Florida Congresswoman, a Mostly True for her claim about border security: She is correct that the highest number of border patrol agents has been under Obama, but this ignores that the big growth came under President George W. Bush.

• We also rated Wasserman Schultz’s claim that Obama shifted away from Bush’s strategy of workplace raids and turned the focus on employers. We gave that a Half True. Between 2008 and 2009, immigration audits soared from 503 to more than 8,000. However, other measurements tell a more nuanced story. Final orders against employers, for example, were higher in the 1990s than they are now.

Border security

• Obama said in a May radio address, "We’ve put more boots on" the U.S.-Mexico "border than at any time in our history, and illegal crossings are down by nearly 80 percent from their peak in 2000."

We found that there are more Border Patrol agents than ever along the border -- there were once more during military pursuits but that’s a different situation -- but Obama omitted some key context. For instance, most of the surge in agents occurred under Bush, and there is no tally indicating that illegal border crossings are down nearly 80 percent. (Apprehensions were down 78 percent between 2000 and 2012, which may be what Obama was thinking of.) It’s also worth noting that economic conditions -- not enforcement -- have driven most ebbs and flows in migration. We rated Obama’s statement Half True.

• Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said the immigration bill "has a specific provision that says that Secretary Napolitano does not have to build any fence if she chooses not to." His press secretary pointed to an "opt-out" provision in the bill. But it would take a dramatic leap of legal interpretation to argue that provision allows the Homeland Security secretary to skip fence-building altogether. Legal experts we spoke to said, instead, it gives the secretary discretion about where to build border fencing. We rated this claim False.

• Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said "In 2010, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found that only 6.5 percent of the U.S.-Mexico border was under full control of the Border Patrol." That report showed 6.5 percent of border miles in fiscal 2010 were under the Border Patrol’s top level of security, meaning agents and equipment were constantly present and monitoring the border. But the same report said 44 percent of border miles were under what the agency considered acceptable levels of security. We rated his statement Mostly True

• Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, said on CNN in April that he was awaiting an answer from Obama about border security. "As a matter of fact, I handed him a letter some two or three years ago on the tarmac at the Austin airport about that issue, about border security. And yet to get a response."

Perry fielded a reply to his letter from a White House deputy about three weeks after the politicians met on the tarmac -- it might not have satisfied Perry but he did get a response. We rated this statement Pants on Fire.

• Comedian Bill Maher said during his June show that an amendment to the Senate bill is "going to make the Border Patrol bigger than the FBI -- you could put one agent every 250 feet." The Border Patrol would double to 37,716 which while the FBI had 35,629 employees in 2012. We rated this claim True.

Visas, immigrant families

• Months before the Senate bill was unveiled, Rubio said, "But I don't think that in the 21st century we can continue to have an immigration system where only 6.5 percent of people who come here, come here based on labor and skill. We have to move toward merit and skill-based immigration." Immigration data shows that most people come here for family reasons. The number of legal immigrants who come based on an employment varies depending on the type of visa and category of employment. But one valid example is to look at legal permanent residents -- 13.1 percent were employment-based preferences in 2011, and professionals with advanced degrees accounted for 6.3 percent. We rated Rubio’s statement Mostly True.

• Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s comment "Immigrants are more fertile," sparked debate on twitter. Fertility can mean the ability to have children, but it can also refer to the birth rate of a population -- and that’s the way we evaluated Bush’s statement.

National statistics show that birth rates among foreign-born residents are about 50 percent higher than for U.S.-born women. However, the rates are converging, they vary widely among immigrant groups and over the years, the rates change. So we rated that claim Mostly True.

Growing diversity

• Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., said in a speech to Florida Democrats, "We go into an election next year with something very important happening in Florida this year. This is the year that Florida becomes a majority minority state, joining New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, California and Hawaii. Why is that important? Because it tells us what our strategy as the Democratic Party will be for next year."

Based on our research and interviews with the experts, it’s highly unlikely -- one expert said impossible -- that Florida will become minority-majority next year. It’s possible that it may not happen for many more years. A University of Florida study projects it won’t happen before 2040. We rated his statement False.

• On Dec. 5, Univision anchor Jorge Ramos offered a factual claim that drew a surprised "Really?" from Daily Show host Jon Stewart. "The most popular name is no longer John or Steven," Ramos told Stewart. "It's Jose, Camilo and Maria."

Ramos told us he was thinking of states with large Hispanic populations. With that caveat, he has a bit of a point. In states with the highest percentage of Hispanics, Jose beats out John and Steven. Camilo and Maria are not really contenders. None of these names are the most popular in any state. We rated this statement Mostly False.

Spot a claim about immigration or any other topic that warrants a fact-check? Tweet us at #PolitiFactThis or email us at [email protected]

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Fact-checking immigration: A year-end report