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Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan April 19, 2013

Immigrants would get free cell phones under new proposal, bloggers claim

Have you heard of Obamaphones, cellphones for people on welfare? Now there’s a new catchphrase going around conservative circles: Marcophones.

It’s a hard jab at U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who’s supporting immigration legislation put forward by a small group of senators called the Gang of Eight.

The group recently released a draft of the legislation. Now bloggers have seized on the bill to make the claim that it gives free cell phones to illegal immigrants.

"Move Over ‘Obama Phone,’ Say ‘Hola!’ to the Marco Rubio Immigration Phone, AKA MarcoPhone," said The Shark Tank, a conservative South Florida website.

"According to the newly filed bill, immigrants who are allowed to enter the United States under a work visa, will be ‘granted’ a taxpayer funded cellular phone," it continued.

"Immigration bill contains Marcophones," repeated the conservative website Breitbart.

Soon, the story was zipping around the Internet, in one case even sent out by a staff member of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who opposes the legislation.

It prompted Marco Rubio to take to Twitter in protest of the rumors. "Report that claims #immigrationreform gives immigrants free cell phones is false & reckless," he said.

We were immediately dubious that the legislation said any such thing. The old "Obamaphones" rumor, for example, has been widely debunked. President Barack Obama never started a program to give out free cell phones to his supporters. Instead, he inherited a longstanding federal program that subsidizes phone service for the poor, including cellphone service. And the Federal Communications Commission under Obama’s watch has moved to put more restrictions on the program to prevent fraud and waste.

So it was an easy call to take a look at the legislation and check out the "Marcophones" rumor for ourselves.

One quick clue that the rumor was off-base: The section that allegedly authorizes the free phones, Section 1107, is part of the bill’s Title I, which has to do with border security.

Featured Fact-check

The bill authorizes a program to "improve emergency communications in the Southwest Border region." It creates grants for people who can prove they work and live in the region and are "at greater risk of border violence due to the lack of cellular service at his or her residence or business and his or her proximity to the Southwest border."

The bill specifically mentions grants should be for satellite phones that "provide access to 911 service and are equipped with global positioning services."

After the blogosphere lit up with the rumor, Rubio said in a statement that the program was put forward in response to the death of an Arizona rancher, Robert Krentz. Intruders attacked Krentz on his property near the U.S.-Mexico border in 2010. His murder remains unsolved.

"Attempts to track Krentz's location using GPS from his cell phone were unsuccessful. Verizon had trouble getting a ‘ping' signal possibly due to sparcity of cell towers in the area," said a report from News 4 Tucson.

In the weeks after Krentz’s death, then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., sent letters to the major wireless carriers asking them to improve cell phone service in the border area.

"It is evident that the lack of reliable electronic communications is a factor in the growing public safety problem faced by area residents," Giffords wrote on April 9, 2010. "It also contributed to a delay in the search for Mr. Krentz once he was reported missing and in the coordination of an immediate hunt for his killer who was able to escape into Mexico."

PolitiFact reached Javier Manjarres, managing editor of the Shark Tank blog. He said the blog highlighted the communications grants because the language of the bill seemed ambiguous.

"Obviously, the bill doesn’t say only immigrants are getting them. We’re saying it because, hey, it could happen down the road, and the bill is so vague," he said.

It’s true that the bill authorizes the program in broad outlines and doesn’t set out specific criteria. But the bill also says the program will be administered by the secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the governors of the Southwest border states. This means the secretary would have the authority to set up eligibility criteria. And that criteria would have to promote the goal of border security, not welfare for new immigrants.

Our ruling

Bloggers charge that new immigration legislation includes "a taxpayer funded cellular phone" for new immigrants. Their evidence is based on something else entirely: a public safety program aimed at beefing up border security.

The bill includes grants aimed at helping American ranchers and others in remote locations along the border get satellite phone service so they can be in touch with authorities. And Rubio can point to a well-documented case in which a rancher was killed on his property, and authorities said better phone service would have made a difference in speeding up their response to the case.

We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

The Shark Tank, Move over "Obama Phone," say ‘Hola!’ to the Marco Rubio immigration phone, aka MarcoPhone, April 17, 2013

Breitbart, Immigration bill contains ‘Marcophones’, April 17, 2013

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer website, draft immigration bill, accessed April 18, 2013

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio website, Myth vs. fact: The perils of peddling an "amnesty phone" myth, April 17, 2013

The Shark Tank, Rubio’s Myths vs. Facts Behind the MarcoPhone, April 18, 2013

Interview with Javier Manjarres, April 19, 2013

States New Service, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords asks communications executives to improve border-area cell phone service, April 10, 2010, accessed via Nexis

Congressional Record, speech from U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, May 25, 2010

News 4 Tucson, New details released in Robert Krentz murder investigation, June 15, 2010

Tampa Bay Times, Along U.S. border with Mexico, issue of security is intensely personal, March 8, 2013

Buzzfeed, Republican Senate Office Staffer Forwards False "MarcoPhone" Claim, April 17, 2013

PolitiFact, Adam Putnam: Obama campaign gives free cell phones to supporters, Oct. 31, 2012

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Immigrants would get free cell phones under new proposal, bloggers claim

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