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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

More Border Security Spin in Arkansas

An ad from Sen. Mark Pryor inaccurately claims that Rep. Tom Cotton “voted to cut funding for the border protection.” The claim is based on Cotton’s support for an alternative House Republican budget that generally called for deep cuts to spending, but did not say whether those cuts should include border security.

Cotton, who is vying for Pryor’s Senate seat, has repeatedly called for additional border security and funding for additional fencing along the southwest border.

With immigration at the forefront of the national conversation due to a surge of unaccompanied children from Central America crossing the border illegally, both candidates have pivoted to ads accusing the other of being weak on border security. We recently wrote about a Cotton campaign ad that cherry-picked a quote and several votes to distort Pryor’s position on border security. And now comes Pryor’s response.

The Pryor ad begins by defending the Arkansas senator’s vote last year for the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, noting that it was supported by John McCain and other Republican senators. The ad argues  — and we agree — that it is not appropriate to label the comprehensive immigration bill as “amnesty.” In the ad, Pryor calls the bill “tough but fair.” Meanwhile, the ad’s narrator says, Cotton “voted to cut funding for the border protection, and played politics with our security.”

The ad’s claim is based on Cotton’s votes for the Republican Study Committee’s budget plans in 2013 and 2014. Those budgets, posed as more conservative alternatives to the mainstream Republican House budgets, called for deep cuts to discretionary spending in an effort to balance the federal budget in four years.

The 2014 plan, for example, called for a 22 percent cut in non-defense discretionary spending by fiscal year 2016. If those cuts were applied across-the-board, the Pryor campaign argues, it would mean cutting the border security budget by more than $800 million. A cut that large, the Pryor campaign extrapolates, could mean cutting more than 5,000 border security agents.

The key phrase in the Pryor analysis, though, is “if those cuts were applied across-the-board” — a caveat that is missing in the ad. There is no suggestion of that in the Republican Study Committee Budget. In fact, the RSC plan, a nonbinding budget resolution, is completely silent on the issue of border security funding.

“A budget resolution is a guide for Congress,” Martin Wattenbarger, a spokesman for the RSC told us in a phone interview. “It is aggressive in reducing spending. But it doesn’t do anything to address border security spending specifically.”

Pryor’s campaign notes that while the RSC budget specifically exempts cuts from veterans affairs, for example, no such explicit protection was given to border security. But the bottom line is that if the budget resolutions passed — and neither of them did — then it would be up to appropriations committees to decide how to prioritize spending to meet the overall budget goals.

And there is some evidence that funding border security has been a priority for Cotton.

For example, Cotton was a cosponsor of H.R. 2220, the SMART Act of 2013. The bill sought to beef up security along the southwest border, requiring the Secretary of Homeland Security to “achieve and maintain operational control of the U.S.-Mexico border (defined as a condition in which there is at least a 90 percent probability that all illegal border crossers are apprehended and narcotics and other contraband are seized).” The bill would have, among other things, added 1,500 border security agents; made available up to 10,000 members of the National Guard, as requested by border states; and required a biometric entry-exit system at all ports of entry within two years. The bill never got out of committee.

In an opinion piece published by the Wall Street Journal on July 10, 2013, Cotton argued for an “enforcement-first” approach to immigration, including “a border fence, a visa-tracking system to catch visa overstayers, and a workable employment-verification system,” all of which he argues the Senate bill supported by Pryor lacked. And in an interview with the Washington Examiner on July 19, 2013, Cotton argued that “there has to be security in place and actually effective. We have to see a fence in place actually stopping illegal immigration” before he would consider a bill dealing with those currently in the country illegally.

Increased fencing and other enhanced border security measures is actually an issue on which Cotton and Pryor largely agree, despite attack ads suggesting otherwise. In other words, both sides are playing politics with the immigration issue.

— Robert Farley