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Freshman U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is rated a first-tier Republican presidential contender for 2016, made a trip to heavily Democratic Chicago and Milwaukee to advocate for private school vouchers and to reach out to low-income and Latino residents.
Along the way, he made an interesting claim about how many illegal immigrants actually entered the United States legally.
The bill had passed the Senate, winning votes from all 52 Democrats plus 14 Republicans and two independents, but was never taken up by the GOP-controlled House. It would have allowed the some 11 million immigrants without documents to get permission to live and work in the country legally, while also providing a pathway to citizenship and taking steps to improve border security.
Paul told the reporter he supports immigration reform, but that one reason he voted against the bill is it would have too strictly limited the number of people who could enter the United States with work visas.
He continued by saying:
"One of the fundamental problems in our immigration system currently -- of the 11 million who are here, 40 percent had a visa and then became illegal. The primary reason they become illegal is that they were picking crops for $9 an hour and they saw a sign for $14 an hour doing construction work. They changed jobs."
Is Paul right?
A foreign citizen seeking to immigrate generally must be sponsored by a U.S. citizen or prospective employer, and have an approved petition before applying for an immigrant visa.
Some people, of course, cross the border into the United States illegally. And others -- tourists, students or temporary workers, for example -- enter legally on non-immigrant temporary visas, but then never leave.
A word here on terminology. According to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center Hispanic Trends Project, a leading authority on immigration, "unauthorized immigrants" are all foreign-born non-citizens residing in the country who are not "legal immigrants." These definitions reflect standard usage by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and academic researchers. The vast majority of unauthorized immigrants entered the country without valid documents or arrived with valid visas but stayed past their visa expiration date or otherwise violated the terms of their admission.
The latest estimates by Pew and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security put the number of unauthorized immigrants at at least 11.5 million.
That's more than triple the 3.5 million in 1990, but down from the peak of 12.2 million in 2007, according to Pew.
The number remains relatively high even though there were 1.58 million deportations under President Barack Obama from 2009 through 2012, a faster pace than the 2.01 million deportations done during President George W. Bush’s two terms (2001-2008).
Now let’s get back to Paul’s claim on how many unauthorized immigrants entered the country legally but became illegal because they changed jobs.
Asked for evidence to back Paul's claim, a spokesman cited an April 2013 Wall Street Journal news article.
It said 40 percent of the 11 million undocumented workers in the United States were foreigners who arrived legally, but overstayed their visas.
So, that gives some support to the 40 percent part of Paul’s claim, but the article did not address how many of those immigrants became illegal because they changed jobs.
PolitiFact Texas in 2013 and PolitiFact National in 2010 rated statements by two congressmen that about 40 percent of illegal immigrants became illegal because they overstayed their visas.
Our colleagues reported on a 2006 study by Pew, which they cited as the latest available. It estimated that out of 11.5 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in 2006, between 33 percent and 50 percent were "visa overstayers." The report split the difference by proposing a figure of 45 percent.
However, we could find no evidence -- and Paul didn’t provide any -- to show that the main reason the 40 percent of unauthorized immigrants became illegal was that they changed jobs.
The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that studies worldwide immigration, is not aware of any estimates on how many undocumented U.S. immigrants became illegal because of a job change, a spokeswoman told us.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter immigration laws, said job change "is certainly not the primary reason" for so-called visa overstays.
Vaughan said the vast majority of visa overstays are people who enter the United States with a tourist visa and then stay. She noted that millions of people each year get tourist visas while only tens of thousands are permitted temporary work visas.
As a footnote, regarding the scenario Paul described:
Vaughan said it would be illegal for a person admitted to the United States on a temporary visa for agricultural work to then take a job in a different industry and remain in the country without making the proper immigrant application and getting it approved.
The government allots temporary work visas in areas such as agriculture where laborers are needed, but not with the idea that that person can then take any job and remain in the country, she said.
Paul said 40 percent of illegal immigrants "had a visa and then became illegal," mostly because "they changed jobs."
The best estimates are that roughly 40 percent of illegal immigrants had entered the country legally but became illegal when they overstayed their temporary visa.
There is not evidence, however, to indicate that most of those people became illegal simply because they changed jobs.
We rate Paul's statement Half True.
To comment on this item, go to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s web page.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, video of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul comments to reporters (quote at 2:45), April 23, 2014
Email interview, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul communications director Brian Darling, April 24, 2014
Wall Street Journal, "Many in U.S. illegally overstayed their visas," April 7, 2013
PolitiFact National, "Democratic Rep. Gutierrez says 40 percent of illegal immigrants overstay visas," July 12, 2010
PolitiFact New Jersey, "Rep. Rob Andrews claims most illegal immigrants first arrived legally with visas and then stayed past the expiration dates," Sept. 23, 2012
PolitiFact Texas, "John Carter claim that 40 percent of nation's illegal residents came by plane and overstayed visas draws on 2006 estimate," Sept. 6, 2013
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, "Estimates of the unauthorized immigrant population residing in the United States: January 2011," March 2012
Pew Research Center Hispanic Trends Project, "Population Decline of Unauthorized Immigrants Stalls, May Have Reversed," Sept. 23, 2013
Interview, Center for Immigration Studies Director of Policy Studies Jessica Vaughan, April 25, 2014
Email interview, Center for Immigration Studies Director of Research Steven Camarota, April 25, 2014
Email interview, Migration Policy Institute Director of Communications and Public Affairs Michelle Mittelstadt, April 25, 2014
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