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Lauren Carroll
By Lauren Carroll September 25, 2014

Begich's record on illegal immigration a target in Alaska Senate race

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, says he doesn’t support amnesty for illegal immigrants -- but his opponent Republican Dan Sullivan says Begich cast a "deciding vote" that proves he does.

Last week, the Senate briefly squabbled over immigration legislation, eventually blocking a Republican proposal from coming to a vote. Now, Republicans are using that as ammunition.

Begich voted to block the proposal. In a Sept. 19, 2014, email to supporters, the Sullivan campaign framed this as a blatant contradiction to what Begich has said in the past.

"Yesterday Sen. Mark Begich cast the deciding vote in favor of President (Barack) Obama’s authority to issue executive amnesty to illegal aliens," the email says. "Yeah, I couldn’t believe it either. Especially after he told Alaskans he was against executive amnesty."

The way it’s phrased, Sullivan’s statement makes it sound like Begich voted "Yes" on a bill that approves Obama’s authority to give amnesty to illegal immigrants. Based on our research, that’s not what happened.

What was this vote?

The chain of causality is pretty tangled, but we’ll try to break it down succinctly.

On Sept. 18, Congress passed a bill that funds the government through mid December, including allocations to equip and train Syrian rebels. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., wanted to attach an amendment to the bill that would have stripped down the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program (more on the specifics of the amendment later).

However, they couldn’t propose their amendment. Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., had filled the bill up with his own amendments -- effectively blocking any others from consideration.

Cruz and Sessions asked for a vote to table (kill) one of Reid’s amendments to make room for their proposal. The Senate voted exactly 50-50, with Begich voting "no." The measure needed 51 votes to pass, so it failed, and the Cruz-Sessions proposal never made it to the floor.

Both conservative and liberal media outlets have played this as a vote either for or against Obama’s immigration authority.

It’s possible that some senators voted "no" on this measure because they do not support the Cruz-Sessions amendment, but it’s not a given. Begich’s campaign said he did not support the procedural measure because it would have slowed consideration of the primary bill, which Begich opposed.

In sum: The Senate did not vote on a bill that addressed Obama’s "executive amnesty."  They voted on whether or not they should kill an amendment that addressed numbering in another amendment.

The deciding vote?

The Cruz-Sessions measure was one vote away from passing. The tally split almost evenly along party lines, except for five Democrats -- four of whom are up for re-election -- who sided with Republicans.

Begich sided with Democrats, but was his the "deciding vote"?

We’ve checked many, many claims that say a Democrat cast the deciding vote for the Affordable Care Act. Usually, those claims rate a Mostly False. In order for the measure to pass, it needed every vote up to and including the tiebreaker, so it leaves out a lot of context to designate one individual as the ultimate tiebreaker. The same logic applies here.

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It’s easy to pin blame on Begich because he is a Democrat running for re-election in a red state, so he likely felt pressure to vote both ways. In an interview with Politico, he joked that he possibly could have been swayed to vote with the Republicans but ultimately decided against it. But that doesn’t mean Begich is the only senator who was on the fence.


Whether or not the Cruz-Sessions amendment addresses "executive amnesty" -- as Sullivan’s comment says -- is almost a moot point because Begich never voted on it.

We want to hash it out anyway.

The amendment -- a version of which passed the House in August -- would have stripped funding from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and prevented it from being expanded upon. The program is aimed at young people who arrived in the United States illegally as children. (They’re sometimes referred to as "Dreamers" because legislation that would permanently address their status is known as the DREAM Act.)

Experts disagree on whether or not the Deferred Action program can be considered "executive amnesty."

It is an executive program, to be sure -- Obama and the Department of Homeland Security established the program in 2012. It allows people who were brought to the United States as children and meet other requirements to apply for a two-year deportation deferral and work permit, which can be renewed. (Sullivan’s statement makes it seem like the entire illegal immigrant population is in play.)

"In the immigration context, amnesty is anything that lets an illegal alien stay legally," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for lower immigration levels.

With this definition, Krikorian said Deferred Action is a two-year amnesty program.

On the other side, immigration policy attorney Kamal Essaheb said Deferred Action is not amnesty because it doesn’t permanently prevent someone from being deported. Nor does it absolve them from their crime of entering the country illegally.

A more accurate descriptor is "prosecutorial discretion" because it helps prioritize deportation cases -- of which there are too many for the courts to realistically handle, said Essaheb, who works for the National Immigration Law Center, an advocacy group.  

We asked several experts about this and heard both arguments multiple times.

We searched news databases and couldn’t find any Begich commentary on the Deferred Action program specifically. However, he has said he doesn’t support the president using executive action to give illegal immigrants amnesty.

At a debate in Anchorage last month, Begich and Sullivan were asked if they would support the president taking executive action on giving amnesty to illegal immigrants, according to local publication News-Miner.

"No. Congress needs to be a part of it," Begich said.

(Sullivan said, "No way.")

Our ruling

Sullivan said Begich "cast the deciding vote in favor of President Obama’s authority to issue executive amnesty to illegal aliens."

Begich never voted on this question. In reality, Begich voted "no" on a procedural measure, along with 49 other senators. As a result, a amendment regarding immigration policy did not come up for a vote. It’s debatable whether this amendment really addressed "executive amnesty," and it had little chance of passing even if it hadn’t been blocked. Begich’s vote did not increase Obama’s authority, as Sullivan’s statement makes it seem. Rather, it maintained the status quo.

We rate this claim False.

Our Sources

Sullivan campaign, email to supporters, Sept. 19, 2014

Congressional Record, Amendment S. 3852, Sept. 18, 2014

Congressional Record, Cruz and Sessions remarks, Sept. 18, 2014

U.S. Senate, roll call vote 268, Sept. 18, 2014

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals page, accessed Sept. 25, 2014

GovTrack, H.J. Res. 124 final passage vote, Sept. 18, 2014

Politico, "Funding bill becomes immigration battle," Sept. 18, 2014

Washington Post, "Senate votes to approve Obama’s plan to fight Islamist militants," Sept. 18, 2014

Washington Post, "House passes two Republican measures in response to surge of child migrants," Aug. 1, 2014

News-Miner, "Begich, Sullivan face off for first time at Senate race debate," Aug. 27. 2014

Interview, Kamal Essaheb, immigration policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, Sept. 25, 2014

Interview, Wendy Feliz, American Immigration Council communications director, Sept. 25, 2014

Email interview, Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration studies, Sept. 25, 2014

Email interview, Jon Feere, legal policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, Sept. 25, 2014

Email interview, Alex Nowastreh, immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, Sept. 25, 2014

Email interview, Begich spokesman Max Croes, Sept. 25, 2014

Email interview, Sullivan spokesman Mike Anderson, Sept. 25, 2014

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Begich's record on illegal immigration a target in Alaska Senate race

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