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A still from a video of John Cornyn speaking with reporters, captured by The Hill. A still from a video of John Cornyn speaking with reporters, captured by The Hill.

A still from a video of John Cornyn speaking with reporters, captured by The Hill.

By Brandon Mulder October 3, 2020

Examining Cornyn's record on Dreamer legalization

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, released a Spanish-language campaign advertisement in September that says the senator "fights for all Texans," including immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, known as Dreamers.

The 30-second ad began airing in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and the Rio Grande Valley on Sept 12. In it, a voice-over describes the senator’s position on Dreamers.

"While Senator Cornyn is for secure borders, he strongly supports legalization for Dreamers," the Spanish-speaking narrator says.

There’s no doubt that Cornyn has voiced his support over the years for protecting young Dreamers from deportation. "In America, we don’t hold children responsible for the mistakes their parents made," Cornyn has said. And his aides point to numerous occasions when he has cast votes on bills designed to provide Dreamers a path to citizenship.

Nonetheless, immigrant advocates and Cornyn’s Democratic detractors are quick to highlight other occasions when legislation with Dreamer protections was scuttled or opposed by the senator. A clear picture of Cornyn’s voting record on Dreamers, however, is tangled in the messy politics of immigration reform.

We were curious about Cornyn’s record. We found the issue goes back to Cornyn’s early days in the Senate.

A mixed record

The most popular form of legislation aimed at granting conditional permanent resident status to young immigrants was introduced in 2001, known as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act. In 2003, during his first year in the Senate, Cornyn and a majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a version of the act. But the bill went no further.

It’s at that point where Cornyn’s voting record on the DREAM Act and Dreamers becomes more mixed. In 2007, another version of the act was derailed after Cornyn and a majority of senators supported a procedural move that defeated it.

In 2013, Cornyn opposed a broad-based immigration reform bill crafted by a bipartisan group of senators that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for 11 million immigrants living in the country without authorization, including Dreamers. Cornyn said at the time he opposed the bill because it lacked border security components.

In 2018, during the latest congressional showdown over funding for President Donald Trump’s border wall, Cornyn cosponsored the Trump-backed Secure and Succeed Act while opposing a bill backed by a bipartisan group of senators known as the Common Sense Coalition.

Both efforts would have offered a path to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers and allocated $25 billion for a southern border wall, but the bills differed in other ways.

The Secure and Succeed Act would have canceled the Diversity Visa Program, which awards green cards via a lottery, and limited family-based immigration to spouses and unmarried children under 18. According to the libertarian Cato Institute, these moves would have reduced legal immigration by 44%.

The bipartisan "Common Sense" plan would have prohibited parents from using their Dreamer children’s newly granted citizenship to apply for citizenship themselves, according to a bill description on Sen. Susan Collins’ website.

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Neither bill was successful.

Cornyn’s voting record on the DREAM Act, however, is not the only metric by which his support for Dreamers should be measured, said Cornyn’s spokesman Drew Brandewie. And Brandewie pointed to numerous occasions when the senator has expressed his support for Dreamers.

"I am sympathetic to their plight," Cornyn said in 2019, "and I want to work to find a solution that would allow them to become American citizens."

The language used in the advertisement — that the senator "strongly supports legalization for Dreamers" — should be interpreted narrowly so as not to include his position on the DREAM Act itself, Brandewie said.

For example, in 2017 Cornyn was part of a bipartisan working group that sought a solution for Dreamers after the Trump administration signaled its intent to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — a move that has been held up in the courts.

In 2018, Cornyn criticized a lawsuit that Texas and six other states filed to end DACA. Cornyn said the suit provided no solution and that the state needs the "pool of very productive, good young people" being protected by DACA from deportation.

"One can support legalization without supporting or voting for the DREAM act," Brandewie said.

But to Frank Sharry, executive director of the progressive immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice, making a distinction between supporting the DREAM Act and supporting Dreamers is splitting hairs.

"He technically can say he’s voted for the DREAM Act, but it’s his opposition that’s the major feature of his career," Sharry said.

Cornyn’s ad is "hoodwinking Latino voters into thinking he’s for a priority in that community when he spent the last 15 years undermining it," Sharry said.

Cornyn said during an interview Tuesday with the American-Statesman's editorial board that the stalemate on Dreamers and the tendency for bills to get packaged with other items "is probably my single greatest frustration and disappointment."

"It’s sort of like a Christmas tree. People keep adding different things to it and it almost always seems to collapse under its own weight," Cornyn said.

The version of the DREAM Act currently before Congress could provide a pathway to citizenship for more than 2 million Dreamers. Cornyn opposes the legislation because it would give Dreamers access to federal student financial aid that's not available to citizens — a provision that Brandewie said is "wholly unrelated" to the legalization of Dreamers. 

Our Ruling

A Spanish-language advertisement from Cornyn’s campaign says that Cornyn "strongly supports legalization for Dreamers."

It’s true that Cornyn’s voting history has supported the legalization of Dreamers, but there are also examples of his opposition to bills that package Dreamer protections with other items.

We rate this claim Half True.

Our Sources

Television advertisement, Sept. 12, 2020

Email interviews with John Cornyn Spokesperson Drew Brandewie, Oct. 1, 2020

Interview with John Cornyn Spokesperson Travis Considine, Sept. 29, 2020

Interview with America’s Voice Executive Director Frank Sharry, Sept. 30, 2020

U.S. Sen Susan Collins, Senators Unveil Bipartisan Amendment to Protect Dreamers, Strengthen Border Security, Feb. 14, 2018

Cato Institute, White House Plan Bans 22 Million Legal Immigrants over 5 Decades, Jan. 29, 2018

Dallas Morning-News, Cornyn pans Texas lawsuit to end DACA: ‘I honestly don’t understand’, May 7, 2018

National Immigration Forum, American Dream and Promise Act: Bill Summary, June 4, 2019

Roll Call, Immigrant ‘Dreamers’ look to Supreme Court, Congress for help, Nov. 12, 2019

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, The Secure and Succeed Act Secures the Border, Ends Chain Migration, Cancels the Visa Lottery and Finds a Permanent Solution for DACA, Feb. 14, 2018

Texas Tribune, U.S. Senate passes Immigration Reform Bill, June 27, 2013

U.S. Sen John Cornyn interview with Austin American-Statesman editorial board, Sept. 29, 2020

Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, What You Need to Know About the American Dream and Promise Act, May 2, 2019

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Examining Cornyn's record on Dreamer legalization

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