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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Cherry-picking Pryor on Border Security

An ad from Republican Rep. Tom Cotton cherry-picks a quote and several votes to distort Sen. Mark Pryor’s position on border security.

  • The ad says Pryor, a longtime supporter of increasing and improving fencing along the southwest border with Mexico, cast three votes “against a border fence.” But that ignores Pryor’s votes for border fencing.
  • It also mocks Pryor for saying the border is “much more secure” than it was 10 years ago. But Pryor said in the same interview that the border is “not perfect” and “needs some work.” The evidence supports Pryor’s assessment.

The ad begins with ominous images from the border as a narrator states, “Our southern border, chaos and crime. Washington made the mess. Sen. Mark Pryor voted for amnesty. Citizenship for illegals. Pryor voted against a border fence three times.”

“And now,” the narrator continues, “Pryor ignores the crisis.” The ad then cuts to a clip — twice — of Pryor saying, “We have a much more secure border today than we did 10 years ago.”

“Seriously senator?” the narrator mocks.

The ad is backed by a six-figure buy, and it began airing on Aug. 4. Cotton is trying to unseat the Arkansas Democrat in one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country.

Senate Immigration Bill and Border Fencing

The Cotton ad highlights three votes Pryor cast against bills proposing more border fencing, but it ignores a handful of other bills that he has supported. It is not uncommon for there to be partisan disagreements over the details of bills that share the same goals. And that has been the case with spending money for border fencing.

The ad cites three specific votes, including two in 2006. The first was on April 7, 2006, when Pryor voted against cloture on a Republican immigration bill that focused primarily on border security. Pryor’s campaign said the vote needs to be put in the context of the times, when Congress was considering a comprehensive immigration overhaul. Pryor’s campaign says he supported the border measures but feared that the bill, as a stand-alone border security measure, would have impeded progress toward a more comprehensive immigration bill that included a path to legalization for those in the country illegally. A comprehensive immigration plan never came to pass that year.

Several weeks later, on May 17, 2006, Pryor was among an overwhelming majority in the Senate to support an amendment to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 calling for increased fencing and vehicle barriers along the border.

The Cotton ad notes that two months later, Pryor voted against an amendment proposed by Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions that would have provided the funding for it: $1.83 billion to construct 370 miles of double-layered fencing and at least 461 miles of vehicle barriers along the border with Mexico. But Pryor and others opposed the amendment because the funding would have come via across-the-board cuts to the rest of the Homeland Security appropriations. That created a “Hobson’s choice,” Republican Sen. Judd Gregg said at the time, because it would have required cutting 750 new border-patrol agents and 1,200 new detention beds for those entering the country illegally. Gregg and Pryor were among those who voted the amendment down, 29-71.

In a weekly news conference on July 12, 2006, the day before the vote, Pryor said, “We have voted to beef up border security. I think there’s a broad consensus in Congress and around the country that we need to do that. We need to be much smarter and allocate more resources to our borders. We have leaky borders right now and we all know that. So we are trying to fix that right now.”

Several weeks later, on Aug. 2, 2006, Pryor was among a large, bipartisan majority of senators who voted in favor of $1.83 billion in funding to construct 370 miles of triple-layered fencing, and 461 miles of vehicle barriers along the southwest border.

In September of that year, Pryor also was among a majority of senators who supported the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which called for construction of 700 miles of fencing and enhanced surveillance technology, such as unmanned drones, ground-based sensors, satellites, radar coverage and cameras. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

The last Pryor vote cited in the Cotton ad was in 2010, when Pryor voted against a motion to consider an amendment from then-Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican, to complete the 700 miles of double-layered fence along the southern border. The amendment was attached to a supplemental spending bill to provide funds for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as other disaster relief in Haiti and the U.S. We could find no public record at the time explaining Pryor’s opposition, but Pryor’s campaign says he feared the amendment would upset the progress of the bill. The amendment failed 45-52.

Ironically, while the Cotton ad attacks Pryor’s vote for an immigration overhaul last year as “amnesty” — and then criticizes Pryor for votes against a border fence — the Senate plan would have allocated $46.3 billion toward border security, and would have required no fewer than 700 miles of fencing along the southwest border before the path-to-citizenship provisions could be implemented.

In fact, Pryor was one of only two Democrats who supported an amendment from Republican Sen. John Thune to the Senate immigration bill that would have required 350 miles of reinforced, double-layered fencing be completed before provisional immigrant status could be granted, and would have required the completion of 700 miles of such fencing before any applicants could receive permanent resident status. The amendment failed 39-54.

The so-called “Gang of Eight” immigration bill that Pryor voted for last year did pass the Democratic-led Senate, but ultimately died in the Republican-led House. We’ve taken issue in the past with politicians calling the bill an “amnesty” plan — as the Cotton ad does. The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, which Pryor voted for, includes a path to citizenship for immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally, but it also requires those immigrants to pay a fine, pay back taxes, learn English and then get in line for permanent legal status behind other immigrants already in the system — a process that would take at least 13 years.

More Secure Border?

The Cotton ad claims Pryor “ignores” the border crisis, and as evidence, points to a selectively edited quote of Pryor saying, “We have a much more secure border today than we did 10 years ago.”

Although the ad’s narrator mocks this assessment — saying, “Seriously, senator?” — there is plenty of objective evidence that the statement is accurate.

The number of border patrol agents has nearly doubled from 10 years ago. As we have noted before, President George W. Bush gets most of the credit for that; he signed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act on Dec. 17, 2004, which among other things, authorized adding 2,000 new agents each year between 2006 and 2010.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection told us that in the last decade, it has added 299 miles of new pedestrian fence and 225 miles of new vehicle fence, largely as a result of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which Pryor supported.

The number of apprehensions along the southwest border is down by more than half from 10 years ago. The Pew Hispanic Center in 2012 speculated that increased border patrols were, in part, responsible for a sharp decline in apprehensions of Mexicans illegally crossing the border.

According to a June 2013 assessment by the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Homeland Security has significantly increased its personnel and budget for patrolling the border, but “challenges remain.”

Government Accountability Office, June 27, 2013: At the end of fiscal year 2004, DHS had about 28,100 personnel assigned to patrol U.S. land borders and inspect travelers at air, land, and sea POEs, with a total security cost of about $5.9 billion. At the end of fiscal year 2011, DHS had about 41,400 personnel assigned to air, land, and sea POEs and along the borders, with a total security cost of about $11.8 billion. DHS has reported that these resources have contributed to stronger enforcement efforts on the border. However, challenges remain to secure the border.

In other words, Pryor’s assessment that the border is “much more secure” than it was “10 years ago,” but it’s “not perfect” is supported by objective measures. Moreover, that assessment — used in the Cotton ad to justify the claim that “Pryor ignores the crisis” — is only part of what Pryor said during an interview on KARK’s Capital View on July 20.

Pryor on KARK, July 20: Well, you know what? We do need to worry about our border. Now, we’ve spent more on border security, starting in 2004 we’ve ramped up border security. We have a much more secure border today than we did 10 years ago. It’s not perfect and we all know that we need some work there.

The interviewer then noted that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the border is secure and asked if Pryor agreed with the Democratic leader. Pryor said he did not.

Pryor, July 20: I don’t agree. … I would say the border is not secure. Like I said, it’s better. But it’s not as good as it should be. In fact, the Senate passed about a year ago a comprehensive immigration bill. It was bipartisan. It got 70 something votes. That is the toughest border security measure that Congress has ever passed.

In other words, Pryor’s comment was not a justification for inaction. To the contrary, Pryor went on to say that he thinks border security needs to be improved.

As for his alleged inaction on the recent flood of youths coming across the border illegally, Pryor voted on July 31 for a $3.6 billion border crisis bill. It did not get the 60 votes needed to clear a procedural hurdle for it to come to a vote. The Republican-led House passed a $659 million bill to address the humanitarian crisis at the border. But it stood little chance of passing the Democratic-led Senate, and Obama vowed to veto it if it did.

— Robert Farley