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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Rep. Labrador Spins Immigration Bill

Rep. Raul Labrador misrepresented key elements of the Senate immigration bill during a July 7 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

  • Labrador claimed the so-called “Gang of Eight” bill would give legal status to 11 million people currently living in the U.S. illegally. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the number to be about 8 million.
  • He also claimed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano “has already said that the border is secure,” and predicted she will tell Congress “nothing else needs to happen.” Napolitano repeatedly has said that the border “is as secure as it’s ever been,” but more needs to be done.
  • Labrador also said the bill would provide “20,000 non-ag[ricultural] guest workers per year for the entire United States.” That’s true for the first year, but it quickly ramps up to 75,000 by the fourth year.

‘Legalization of 11 million People’?

Labrador, an Idaho Republican, repeatedly exaggerated the number of people living in the U.S. illegally who would gain legal status under the Senate bill. Twice, he said the figure was 11 million, including in the sentence below.

Labrador, July 7: … my concern with the Senate bill is that they put the legalization of 11 million people ahead of security. The legalization happens first, and then the security happens second.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says in a June 2013 report that there were “about 11.5 million unauthorized residents living in the United States at the end of 2011.” But not all of them would become legal under the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. The CBO says “approximately 8 million of the unauthorized residents already in the country would obtain legal status” under the bill.

That’s because the Senate bill requires those living in the U.S. illegally to meet certain criteria before they can gain legal status. A Q-and-A page on the website of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a cosponsor of the bill, says those persons must “be fingerprinted, undergo criminal background checks, [and] pay fines and [back] taxes before any temporary status can be attained.”

CBO estimates that the vast majority of the 8 million would gain legal status as “Registered Provisional Immigrants,” or RPIs. And that’s just the first step toward permanent residency, as explained by the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.

NCSL, April 26: Initial registration would be valid for six years then RPIs must apply for renewal, which requires a background check, additional fees and a fine along with proof of employment and proof that they will not become a public charge. After 10 years, RPIs can apply for an adjustment in status, like Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR), and, after three additional years, apply for naturalization. Fees and fines will need to be paid as well as demonstrated proof of employment, English language acquisition, and passing a background check, among other requirements.

Labrador isn’t the only opponent of the Senate immigration bill to make such an exaggeration. In a June 25 floor speech (page S5140), Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said the Senate bill “takes some 11 million people who are here illegally and it grants them what is called RPI status — registered provisional immigrant status.” That’s simply not so.

Border Security

Labrador repeated the 11 million figure when he questioned Napolitano’s commitment to border security. He said that he doesn’t trust the Obama administration to appropriately secure the border, and that benchmarks must be part of a comprehensive immigration bill before legalization of immigrants is allowed to move forward.

Labrador, July 7: If you give to this administration the authority to decide when they’re going to enforce the law, how they’re going to enforce the law, and you tell them that it’s okay if they decide if there’s going to be 20,000 … border patrol agents or they get to determine when the border is secure, I can tell you that Janet Napolitano has already said that the border is secure. So what’s going to happen is that we’re going to give legalization to 11 million people and Janet Napolitano is going to come to Congress and tell us that the border is already secure and nothing else needs to happen.

We contacted Labrador spokesman Todd Winer and asked when Napolitano said that “the border is secure.” Winer cited four instances. In an ABC News/Yahoo interview on March 4, Napolitano said the border “is as secure as it’s ever been [in my experience].” Winer also cited a March 25, 2011, Associated Press report in which Napolitano stated at the Bridge of The Americas border crossing in El Paso, Texas, that “[t]here is a perception that the border is worse now than it ever has been. That is wrong. The border is better now than it ever has been.”

Winer also cited Senate testimony from Napolitano in which she stated: “Too often the border security refrain simply serves as an excuse. Our borders have in fact never been stronger.”

In all three instances, Napolitano used variations of the claim that the border is more secure than it has ever been. That’s different than saying the border is secure.

Last, Winer cited an ABC News account of a forum hosted by the Christian Science Monitor on March 26. At that event, Napolitano said “the border is as secure as it’s ever been,” and she argued against “relying on one thing as a so-called trigger” to allow the legalization process to begin. But she didn’t claim that the border is already secure or that “nothing else needs to happen.”

Here’s the fuller context of her remarks:

Napolitano, March 26: The numbers have been driven to 40 year lows if you just look at things like apprehensions. So we know we’re achieving success there. But a real measure is more qualitative. Really, when you step back and think about the border, what you want is the ability to spot illegal traffic, particularly in the highly trafficked areas … And then the ability to respond to what’s seen. And using that measure and the plans we have, we’re confident that the border is as secure as it’s ever been. But there’s no one number that captures that. That is the problem, if you are looking for just one number. Border security encompasses a lot of different things. But as we look at managing the border, what we’re looking for is the ability to detect illegal persons and contraband coming across the border and the ability to intercede.

Later in the forum, Napolitano was asked directly about tying security triggers to legalization.

Napolitano, March 26: I think once people really look at the whole system and how it works, relying on one thing as a so-called trigger is not the way to go. There needs to be certainty in the bill so that people know when they can legalize and then when the pathway to citizenship, earned citizenship, would open up. There’s also talk about getting in the back of the line. That’s easier said than done — calculating what the line is at any given time. It moves. So those judgments will have to be made. But I think the key thing is to have border security in the bill, to open up legal migration more than it is, to deal with employers, and then to have certainty with how the 11 million here, who are either illegal or undocumented, depending on what your vocabulary is, come out of the shadows.

So Napolitano argued against a single metric as a trigger for legalization of immigrants, but she also stated that “the key thing is to have border security in the bill.”

She has consistently stressed, as she did in remarks at the Washington Conference on the Americas on May 8, that more needs to be done.

Napolitano, May 8: One of the problems historically has been that once the attention is turned to something else, the resources go away. Those resources need to be sustained. This is a big border. It’s a heavily trafficked border. And we know we can do even more to secure it. So let no one think there’s not a commitment to doing that.

Incidentally, although not mentioned by Labrador’s office, we did find one instance of Napolitano saying “I believe the border is secure.” It came during a news conference in San Diego on Feb. 5, after she toured the border. She was asked directly by a reporter, “You believe the border is secure then, today?” (It starts at about the 8 minute mark.)

Napolitano, Feb. 5: I believe the border is secure. I believe the border is a safe border. That’s not to say that everything is 100 percent. It would be unrealistic, and no one I think using common sense would say you eliminate all crime, all illegal immigration. There is no city in the United States that has no crime, and yet most people believe they live in a fairly safe city or safe city. So, you have to look at a number of different things. Our commitment is to continue to invest, as we have been, to do it in a planned way, to do it in a way that emphasizes efforts at the border, emphasizes efforts in the interior of the country on more effective enforcement in the interior, more effective operation against employers who create the demand for a lot of illegal immigration, and we’re going to continue that. But I got to tell you … we can only do so much without having an overhaul of the immigration system writ large.

Even though she once said “the border is secure,” Napolitano has repeatedly used variations of the claim that the border is “as secure as it’s ever been.” That’s different.

Labrador raises a legitimate issue about whether there ought to be security benchmarks that must be met before legalization of immigrants begins. Napolitano has cautioned against using “one thing as a so-called trigger.” But Labrador’s claim that Napolitano would argue “nothing else needs to happen” contradicts her repeated public statements that more border security ought to be part of an immigration bill.

Guest Workers

Labrador also told only part of the story when he cited the number of nonagricultural guest visas in the Senate bill.

Labrador, July 7: One of the problems with the Senate bill that we haven’t talked about is that the non-ag [sic] guest worker portion of the Senate bill … starts out at 20,000 guest workers per year. Think about that. I’ve had some congressmen say, ‘Do you mean 20,000 per county? 20,000 per state?’ And it’s not. It’s 20,000 non-ag [sic] guest workers per year for the entire United States. You’re not going to cut back illegal immigration by only bringing 20,000 guest workers to the United States.

Labrador is talking about the new W-Visa program in the bill, which would allow a set number of guest-worker visas to foreign workers in lesser-skilled, nonagricultural occupations such as hospitality, janitorial, retail and construction.

Labrador is correct that the number of W-Visas issued in the first year under the Senate bill would be 20,000. But the number quickly ramps up to 75,000 by the fourth year, and could go as high as 200,000 in subsequent years.

S. 744 Bill Summary: Limits the number of registered positions that may be approved each year to: (1) 20,000 for the first year (to begin on April 1, 2015, and end on March 31, 2016, unless the Secretary determines that the first year shall begin on October 1, 2015, and end on September 30, 2016); (2) 35,000 for the second year; (3) 55,000 for the third year; and (4) 75,000 for the fourth year.

The number of W-Visas issued in subsequent years would be determined by a formula that takes into account such factors as unemployment rates and occupational shortcomings. After the fourth year, the number could be as high as 200,000 and as low as 20,000 in any given year.

The caps came about as a result of negotiations with union and business leaders. Labrador’s concern about the low number of W-Visas is shared by a number of people in the business community. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania unsuccessfully proposed an amendment that would have taken the cap on the number of W-Visas up to 200,000 in the first year; and up to 350,000 by the fourth year. (See page 4738.)

“If we do not raise the caps for the low-skilled workers who want to come to this country, then the next wave of illegal immigration is guaranteed regardless of what we do at the border,” Toomey said when he introduced the amendment.

We take no position on the appropriate number of W-Visas. But when Labrador says the number starts at 20,000, he doesn’t give the full picture.

— Robert Farley and Eugene Kiely