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In their first debate, three candidates for the Republican nomination for North Carolina’s U.S. House District 2 squared off last week on who deserves to represent the area in Washington, D.C.
The district was recently redrawn to include most of the suburban Wake County areas around Raleigh as well as all or part of the more rural Harnett, Johnston, Wilson, Nash and Franklin counties. In an oddity created by the new boundaries, two of the primary candidates are incumbents now fighting for the same seat.
Throughout the debate, Rep. George Holding attempted to paint himself as a staunch conservative who won’t budge on controversial issues. Rep. Renee Ellmers attempted to paint herself as a more pragmatic conservative who would rather get things done.
That fight was perhaps most apparent in a back-and-forth on immigration policy. Holding accused Ellmers of being too liberal in a 2015 vote.
"We had an amendment to prioritize the deportation of sexual criminals who are illegal immigrants," Holding said. "Mrs. Ellmers was the only Republican to vote against that amendment."
It’s true that Ellmers was the only Republican to vote no on that particular amendment, which was tacked onto a bill regarding Department of Homeland Security funding. She was also one of 10 Republicans who voted against the bill as a whole.
However, the amendment in question did more than just prioritize the deportation of dangerous sexual criminals. It also would’ve prioritized people convicted of domestic violence or less serious, misdemeanor sexual crimes.
And it was because of fears over unintended consequences of those extra provisions – which Holding neglected to mention – that Ellmers has long said she voted no.
Immediately after the 2015 vote, Ellmers said in an interview with McClatchy’s D.C. bureau that she opposed it because it "may remove protections for victims of sexual assault or domestic abuse."
That was the same stance taken by the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Both groups urged a ‘No’ vote, saying the amendment would lead to domestic and sexual violence going unreported.
"Victims of domestic violence often do not seek help when they know that the consequences to the perpetrator (for example, a spouse or parent, or perhaps other family member) may result in the perpetrator’s deportation," the task force wrote to members of Congress. "This often takes place due to their financial dependence, and even close relationship to the perpetrator."
The bishops agreed, writing: "While presented as a measure that helps domestic violence victims, we fear that it actually would discourage many such victims from reporting abuse."
The amendment and the bill as a whole passed the House despite that opposition. But the amendment in question was removed by the Senate, which passed the bill and sent the new version back to the House, which approved it even though it didn’t include the amendment. President Obama then signed the bill into law.
That chain of events led Ellmers, during the recent debate, to shoot back at Holding.
"That amendment was completely meaningless, and you know it was," she said.
And even though Holding brought up sexual criminals, the amendment would have changed nothing for the most egregious offenders. Undocumented immigrants who commit felonies – including serious sexual crimes like rape – were already given top priority for deportation.
Ellmers referenced that in the debate: "As far as deporting those who are the worst offenders – those illegal immigrants who are pedophiles – my goodness, are we not doing that now?"
It was a rhetorical question. But according to the government, we are indeed doing just that.
In 2014, the Department of Homeland Security listed its highest priorities for deportation: convicted of a felony, convicted of gang-related crimes, caught at the border or suspected of being a terrorist or spy.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) report on the 2015 fiscal year said 98 percent of the 235,413 people deported that year met one of its criteria or were otherwise considered a threat to public safety.
At the debate, Ellmers also said she voted no because she thought Republicans should have worked with Democrats to find a compromise instead of letting President Obama set the country’s immigration policy while Congress remains in a boondoggle.
"I find it interesting that we are still in a place where we are having this conversation about what we are not getting done," Ellmers said.
Holding said Ellmers was the only Republican to vote against "an amendment to prioritize the deportation of sexual criminals who are illegal immigrants."
Holding was correct about Ellmers’ conspicuous break from party ranks. But his description of the amendment was a bit misleading, since anyone convicted of a felony for a sex crime was already prioritized for deportation.
Ellmers has also long said she voted against the bill due to fears that it would lead to less reporting of domestic violence. That’s a key piece of context that was missing from Holding’s assessment of her record.
We rate this claim Half True.
Alabama Rep. Martha Roby press release, Jan. 13, 2015, "Child Molesters, Domestic Abusers Prioritized for Deportation in DeSantis-Roby Amendment"
The News & Observer, May 21, 2016, "Conservative bonafides at issue in 2nd District Republican primary"
Bill text versions, H.R. 240, 114th Congress
Text of amendments offered to the bill (Amendment 3 is the one in question)
McClatchy Washington Bureau, Jan. 14, 2015, "Rep. Renee Ellmers breaks with GOP on immigration votes"
National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, Jan. 12, 2015, "Letter To Congress In Opposition To The Aderholt And DeSantis Amendment"
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Jan. 13, 2015, Letter from the Committee on Migration
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement report, "FY 2015 ICE Immigration Removals"
Department of Homeland Security, memo from Secretary Jeh Johnson, Nov. 20, 2014, "Policies for the Apprehension, Detention and Removal of Undocumented Immigrants"
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