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Playing Politics With Immigration

Competing ads from the leading candidates in the Louisiana Senate race play politics with the immigration issue and leave misleading impressions about the candidates’ positions.

  • Rep. Bill Cassidy’s ad criticizes Landrieu for supporting “amnesty” based on her vote for a bipartisan immigration bill in 2013. The bill included an earned path to citizenship, not blanket amnesty — a distinction Cassidy himself made in a 2013 interview.
  • An ad from Sen. Mary Landrieu quotes Cassidy out of context to suggest he’s weak on border security. He is heard saying, “Our threat is not the folks coming across the border.” Actually, Cassidy was talking about the biggest threat to Louisiana jobs, which he said was a moratorium on offshore drilling, not illegal immigration.
  • Landrieu’s ad also boasts of her support for triple-layer fencing. She did support hundreds of miles of it in 2006, but seven years later she called that vote a “mistake.”
  • That same ad falsely claims Landrieu “voted nine times to block amnesty.” There were no votes on amnesty. Her tortured logic: The immigration system amounts to “de facto amnesty,” so her votes to change it were votes to “block amnesty.” That’s right, Landrieu argues her support for the same bill derided by Cassidy as “amnesty” was actually a vote to “block amnesty.” Both are wrong.

The immigration volley comes as a Politico poll of likely voters from states with competitive Senate and House races, including Louisiana, found that nearly two-thirds disapprove of the way Obama is handling immigration. The poll also said 66 percent of likely voters support “comprehensive immigration reform” — something Cassidy says on his campaign website that he opposes — though voters were nearly split on the issue of whether such legislation ought to include a pathway to citizenship for immigrants now living in the U.S. illegally.

Cassidy and Landrieu head up a field of nine candidates who are vying for the Senate seat in a Nov. 4 election.

Cassidy: ‘Amnesty’

The opening volley in the immigration ad war came from the Cassidy campaign with an ad attempting to link Landrieu’s position on immigration to Obama’s and labeling her a supporter of “amnesty.”

In the ad, Cassidy says, “The border is a mess. Barack Obama and Mary Landrieu support amnesty, which makes it worse. … I oppose amnesty. We must secure that border now. Mary Landrieu represents Barack Obama. I represent you.”

Cassidy’s claim about Landrieu supporting amnesty is tied to her vote in 2013 for S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, otherwise known as the bipartisan Gang of Eight immigration bill. The bill included a series of border security measures that would have to be achieved, and then a pathway to citizenship would be available to immigrants living in the U.S. illegally since at least Dec. 31, 2011. The earned path to citizenship included paying fines and back taxes, proving gainful employment, completing background checks, learning English and civics, and going to the back of the line of prospective immigrants.

We’ve said numerous times before that such an earned path to citizenship does not meet the strict definition of amnesty, which implies that immigrants currently in the U.S. illegally would be granted immediate, permanent residency without any of the requirements listed above.

Moreover, this is a distinction that Cassidy seemed to appreciate back in 2013 when the Senate bill was being considered. In a Legal Lines interview of Cassidy by Locke Meredith in February 2013, Cassidy made clear his secure-the-border-first priority, but he also outlined principles for a path to citizenship and said “that would not be amnesty.”

Meredith: Explain what else needs to take place if and when we clear the border hurdle?

Cassidy: There’s been no legislation introduced. It’s only been principles that have been advanced. And so, if you will, I will reserve final judgment until I see the legislation. It’s one thing to talk, it’s another thing to see what is actually proposed. … Some of the principles that have been discussed is that you first secure the border. …

And so some of the other principles that people discuss are that, ok, once you’ve secured the border, you create a pathway to citizenship where someone may pay a fine, would begin to pay taxes if they are not already doing so … potentially pay back taxes as well … and then they get in the back of the line in the legal process to work though. They don’t bump ahead, they go to the back. …

And you also expect folks to learn to speak English. You want them to integrate into our civic society, not remain without it. And so, those are the principles. Now, whether or not the final package will have that will really determine how much broad support it gets in Congress.

Meredith: Now one other issue that seems to be discussed or raised when you contemplate immigration is “amnesty.” Explain that to the folks , and where do you fall on that.

Cassidy: Well, amnesty, as some people … there are different definitions. But one definition of amnesty is that there’s no penalty to pay, that you immediately become a citizen and there’s no obligation either to return or to do anything to make arrears to make up for what you have not previously paid. I’m opposed to amnesty. That is wrong.

You need to have a process where if somebody comes in, then if those working principles are what are adhered to, that would not be amnesty.

Cassidy’s campaign says he was simply outlining the principles being offered in the Senate at that time, and that he did not endorse any of those positions. When we asked whether Cassidy would support an earned path to citizenship once the border is secure, a spokesman for the campaign responded, “He would not.”

Once the details of the Gang of Eight Senate bill emerged, Cassidy quickly denounced it as inadequate on border security.

“The solution must begin with securing borders,” Cassidy said in June 2013. “As now written, the Senate bill does not secure the border and effectively creates a pathway to amnesty. With this in mind, I cannot support the Senate bill in its current form.”

The immigration effort ultimately died when House Speaker John Boeher announced that he would not allow the bill to move forward in the House, because “the American people and their elected officials don’t trust him to enforce the law as written.”

We’ll let readers decide whether the ad’s characterization of the Senate bill as “amnesty” contradicts Cassidy’s definition of amnesty in February 2013. Regardless, our position at FactCheck.org is that the Gang of Eight bill did not meet the strict definition of amnesty.

Moreover, the ad’s attempt to link Landrieu’s vote for the Gang of Eight bill to Obama by saying she “represents” Obama is not entirely accurate. It’s true that Obama praised the Gang of Eight’s efforts, and endorsed the bill’s “key principles,” but he also made clear that it was a political compromise — not his preferred plan.

Obama, June 27, 2013: The bipartisan bill that passed today was a compromise. By definition, nobody got everything they wanted. Not Democrats. Not Republicans. Not me. But the Senate bill is consistent with the key principles for commonsense reform that I – and many others – have repeatedly laid out.

As the name suggests, the Gang of Eight bill was proposed by eight senators, four Democrats and four Republicans. The Republicans were Sens. Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Marco Rubio. In other words, instead of saying Landrieu “represents Barack Obama” on the immigration issue, the Cassidy ad could just as easily have said her vote “represents” Graham or Rubio.

We should note that Louisiana isn’t the only state where Republicans have used the Gang of Eight bill to link their Democratic opponents to Obama. In Kentucky, for example, the Kentucky Opportunity Council is running an ad that labels Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes as a “proud supporter of Obama’s amnesty plan” based on her support for the bipartisan Senate bill.

The Landrieu Spin

Days after Cassidy’s immigration ad began airing, the Landrieu campaign responded with an ad featuring a trifecta of misleading claims, highlighted by an out-of-context quote from Cassidy that leaves the misleading impression that he doesn’t think border security is a problem.

The ad’s narrator begins by referencing the earlier Cassidy ad, saying, “Bill Cassidy is attacking Mary Landrieu on illegal immigration? Listen to why he opposed a border fence. …”

The ad then cuts to a clip of Cassidy saying, “Our threat is not the folks coming across the border.”

“Really?” the narrator asks incredulously. “Mary Landrieu thinks that is the threat. The chairman of Homeland Security Appropriations, she voted to double the border patrol, build triple-layer fencing, and voted nine times to block amnesty.”

The Cassidy quote comes from an August 2010 town hall meeting in which Cassidy was discussing Arizona’s controversial immigration law. The quote in question was a setup to Cassidy’s larger point that a federal moratorium on offshore oil drilling posed the biggest threat to Louisiana job creation. You can listen to his fuller answer here.

Cassidy, August 2010 town hall meeting: We applaud the people of Arizona. We need to have enforcement of the laws that are on the book and we need to make sure that the folks that are here are here legally. That said, in our state, our threat to us – and I’m just going to editorialize here, because I’m so passionate about it – our threat’s not the folks coming across the border. Our threat to our jobs is the fact that we have a moratorium on our continental shelf drilling, which the scientists have said does not make sense and will not improve safety. But the 23,000 jobs [from] the most conservative estimates are going to be lost if it continues. So there’s other issues where we need to force the hand of the federal government.

As the fuller context makes clear, Cassidy wasn’t saying the problem of immigrants coming across the border was not a threat, but rather that a moratorium on offshore drilling represented a comparatively bigger threat to Louisiana job creation.

Pulling the quote out of context as evidence that Cassidy “opposed a border fence” also belies Cassidy’s history of supporting enhanced border security. In June, Cassidy co-sponsored H.R. 2220, a Republican bill that sought to “take actions to achieve and maintain operational control of the U.S.-Mexico border.” In July, Cassidy introduced a bill that sought to expedite the deportation process. And his opposition to the bipartisan Senate immigration plan was primarily based on the belief that it did not do enough to ensure border security.

Border Fencing

Landrieu also boasts in her ad that she “voted to … build triple-layer fencing.” True, but that may come as a surprise to those who recall her deriding an amendment to the Senate immigration bill last year that would have required 350 miles of new double-layer fencing along the southern border before any path to citizenship provisions could begin. In a floor speech opposing the amendment, Landrieu said she “voted for the dumb fence once” and wouldn’t make the same mistake again.

The small print in the ad instead cites two votes going back to 2006.

The first was a May 17, 2006, vote in favor of an amendment to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, which called for construction of at least 370 miles of triple-layered fencing along the southwest border, as well as 500 miles of vehicle barriers. The amendment passed 83-16. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act passed the Senate, but never received enough support in the House. The second was a vote in August of that year in favor of an amendment to a defense appropriations bill to provide $1.8 billion to the Army National Guard to construct 370 miles of triple-layered fencing and 461 miles of vehicle barriers along the southwest border. The amendment passed 94-3.

That same year, on Sept. 29, Landrieu also voted in favor of the Secure Fence Act. The bill, signed by President George W. Bush, called for “at least two layers of reinforced fencing” stretching nearly 700 miles.

So Landrieu voted for triple-layer fencing, as the ad says. But there’s more to the story.

The following year, in 2007, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison proposed an amendment giving the Department of Homeland Security the discretion to decide what type of fencing was appropriate for different regions along the border. It passed the Senate by a voice vote. As a result, while U.S. Customs and Border Protection boasts 650 miles of border fencing, only a fraction of that, about 35 miles, is double- or triple-layer fencing, said Michael Friel, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Double-layer fencing is mostly used in urban areas where an illegal border crosser could otherwise quickly blend in to the adjoining community, such as at a nearby shopping center, Friel said. Most of the 650 miles of fencing is pedestrian or vehicle fencing at strategic points along the border. Other portions of the 1,900-mile border are policed by electronic surveillance.

In June 2013, as the Senate immigration bill was being debated, Sen. John Thune proposed an amendment that would have required the completion of 350 miles of reinforced, double-layer fencing before provisional status would be granted to any immigrants currently in the U.S. illegally.

Landrieu took to the floor to denounce Thune’s proposed amendment, referring to it as a “dumb fence.”

Landrieu, June 13, 2013: I will vote against Senator Thune’s amendment because I am not going to waste taxpayer money on a dumb fence, and that is what his fence would be. We need to build a smart fence. A fence is not just a physical structure which can be built out of a variety of different materials with or without barbed wire on the top. …

It is not correct for anybody listening to this debate to think that people on the Democratic side of this aisle or people supporting this bill do not want to secure the border. Nothing could be further from the truth. I may be overridden, and people may vote against it, but I am going to hold the position that we cannot waste billions and billions of dollars building a fence that doesn’t hold anybody on one side or the other. We have wasted enough taxpayer money. …

So we are going to put money in this bill to build a smart barrier that is going to have all the new technology we need to track down illegal immigrants and close that off. …

I voted for the dumb fence once. I am not going to do it again because I learned from my mistake. I went down there to look at it and realized we could build two dumb fences or three dumb fences and it would not work. I am simply not going to waste the money to do something I know will not work. So if somebody else wants to vote for the dumb fence for the second or third time, go right ahead. But I was raised such that when you make a mistake, admit it and then fix it. I intend to fix it.

The fence we are going to build — Senator Carper, Senator Coburn, Senator McCain and I — is a real and virtual fence that is actually going to work.

Landrieu’s campaign points out that while Landrieu did not support Thune’s amendment, she did support the border security measures included in the final version of the Gang of Eight immigration bill, which including more fencing, including double-layer fencing where appropriate. The bill, which required 90 percent effective control of the border, included adding 3,500 border patrol officers, funding additional surveillance and advanced technologies, and adding hundreds of miles of new fencing, “including double-layer fencing.” In other words, Landrieu supports the construction of double-layer fencing, just not as much as some Republicans like Thune would like.

Votes Against Amnesty

Perhaps the most curious claim in the Landrieu ad is that she “voted nine times to block amnesty.” The ad scrolls through vote numbers and dates, but fails to mention those were all votes related to the Gang of Eight Senate immigration bill. Most of the votes were procedural votes related to the bill, but the list also includes votes for border security amendments and her vote in favor of the final bill, which passed 68-32.

So how were votes for the Senate immigration bill — which Cassidy called votes for “amnesty” in his ad — actually votes to “block amnesty”?

In its backup material, the Landrieu campaign quotes a handful of Republicans who argued that the existing, broken immigration policy amounts to “de facto amnesty.” Among those who called the existing policy “de facto amnesty” are Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander, Marco Rubio and Kelly Ayotte — all of whom supported the Senate bill — as well as Republican Reps. Paul Ryan and Rand Paul. In a campaign radio ad this summer, Alexander went so far as to claim, “Last year I voted to end amnesty” — a reference to his vote for the Gang of Eight bill.

Although Landrieu points to some Republican rhetoric to back up her claim, the fact is those who live in the U.S. illegally were not granted amnesty, and there have been no votes to do so. And it is misleading, therefore, for Landrieu to claim that support for the Gang of Eight bill was a vote to “block amnesty.”

— Robert Farley