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The federal immigration debate is turning into a down-ballot issue in Nevada.
Assembly freshmen Erv Nelson and Victoria Seaman are entwined in an ugly Republican primary battle for a critical state Senate seat that holds the potential to tip the balance in the 11-10 Republican-controlled state Senate.
Seaman has relentlessly attacked Nelson, and one of her campaign flyers accuses him of supporting a "pro-amnesty" immigration bill.
"Why did Erv Nelson vote yes on the pro-amnesty SJR 21, a bill urging Congress to provide citizenship for those residing illegally in our country?"
Because immigration is an important topic in Nevada — a state with a "top share of unauthorized immigrants" — we wanted to fact-check this claim.
The accusation leads back to a resolution approved by bipartisan majorities in both houses of the Legislature in 2015: Senate Joint Resolution 21.
Nelson voted for the resolution, while Seaman and 10 other Assembly Republicans voted "no." It passed unanimously in the Senate.
The only Assembly member to comment on the resolution’s passage was Republican Michele Fiore, who called it a "warm and fuzzy feel-good bill" only to be used for "political benefit" in future elections.
"Since it basically does nothing, I urge my fellow colleagues to support SJR 21," she said during a marathon Assembly session shortly before midnight on May 22, 2015.
The resolution is straightforward. It’s little more than two pages listing facts about immigration and urging Congress to take up the issue, and to include "earned legal residency accompanied by a clear path to citizenship." It rehashes similar legislation also approved by bipartisan majorities in 2013.
So claiming Nelson voted for a bill that included support for a pathway to citizenship is accurate, as the resolution clearly spells out. But calling the resolution "pro-amnesty" is harder to prove.
In response to questions from PolitiFact, Seaman’s campaign sent a two-page letter arguing that a pathway to citizenship is equal to amnesty, as "citizenship is a measure of permanent legal relief targeted at a specific group of people."
Use of the word "amnesty" in immigration policy is contentious, and there’s no agreed upon metric by which the word should be used.
PolitiFact did look into use of the word "amnesty" by Republicans critical of President Barack Obama’s proposed immigration policies in 2011 and 2012, but it’s much more difficult due to differences in the 1,200-page immigration bill in 2013 and the two-page resolution approved by lawmakers in 2015.
In general, amnesty is defined as granting permanent immunity from punishment for a group of people who have broken the law.
It’s true that granting citizenship to people not legally in the country would prevent punishments like deportation and broadly serve as "amnesty", but the resolution is just so vague that it’s difficult to call it "pro-amnesty."
A 2011 PolitiFact check found that use of the politically charged word is "debatable and so charged it should come with a lot more explanation."
The resolution additionally doesn’t really do anything other than, in the words of one supporter, "send a strong message to Congress" to take up immigration reform.
Nelson didn’t answer multiple calls seeking comment, but neither candidate played much of a role on any of the 2015 bills that could have actually affected the undocumented immigrant community.
And neither Seaman nor Nelson played a role in a measure prohibiting contractors from hiring unauthorized immigrants, which failed to pass out of committee.
Ultimately, there just isn’t a lot that state-level lawmakers can do on immigration policy outside of "symbolic" gestures like the immigration reform resolution, as it’s almost entirely a federally managed issue.
Nevada did approve driver authorization cards for people not legally in the country in 2013, but neither Seaman nor Nelson was in office at the time.
It’s worth noting that Seaman appears to have voted for the resolution during an earlier committee meeting, according to legislative records requested by PolitiFact. A video of the meeting is online, but it’s difficult to tell if she’s present during the voice vote.
That isn’t necessarily an endorsement, as many lawmakers will vote to get legislation out of committee to the floor so more lawmakers can weigh in. Seaman’s campaign manager claims she was not in the room during the vote.
Seaman says Nelson voted "yes on the pro-amnesty SJR 21, a bill urging Congress to provide citizenship for those residing illegally in our country."
To be clear, the "bill" was actually a resolution that holds no teeth. It calls for a pathway to citizenship for people not legally in the country. But it's too vague to blankly say it falls under the "amnesty" umbrella, and just doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of the immigration debate.
We rate the claim Mostly True.
Phone interview with Susan Furlong, Assembly Chief Clerk, April 5, 2016
Email interview with Ryan Hamilton, Victoria Seaman for Senate District 6 campaign manager, March 31, 2016
Las Vegas Sun, "Three immigration bills to watch at the Nevada Legislature," May 19, 2015
Fox News Latino, "Nevada bill aims to extend teaching licenses to more DREAMers," Feb. 10, 2015
Associated Press, "Nevada has top share of unauthorized immigrants," November 18, 2014
Roll Call, "Immigration Bill Officially Dead: Boehner Tells Obama No Vote This Year, President Says," June 30, 2014
Las Vegas Review-Journal, "DMV: Nevada has issued 20,000-plus driving cards in first six months," June 29, 2014
PolitiFact, "Jim DeMint and other Republicans say Obama immigration plan is amnesty," June 20, 2012
PolitiFact, "Congressman tweets Obama pro- "amnesty" during State of the Union," Feb. 1, 2011
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