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By Kathryn B. Palmer November 4, 2018

McCaskill voted for path to citizenship, but it's a stretch to call it amnesty

Immigration policy is one of the thorniest issues of the 2018 midterm election cycle. Just ask incumbent U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. She’s running against Missouri’s Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley in one of the nation’s most high-profile races.

An ad released by the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican-backed political action committee, questions her voting record on immigration.

"In Missouri, Claire McCaskill said she was against amnesty for illegal immigrants. In Washington, McCaskill joined the liberals for giving amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants without border protections in place," the ad said.

We’ve fact-checked some of the Senate Leadership Fund’s other ads, as well as various politicians’ statements pertaining to McCaskill’s immigration voting record.

We wanted to see if there was truth to the ad’s claim that McCaskill voted along party lines to grant amnesty 11 million undocumented immigrants .

Senate bill 744’s proposed path to citizenship

The Senate Leadership Fund did not respond to PolitiFact’s request for comment or clarification. However, the ad included a small caption referencing McCaskill’s voting record, noting McCaskill’s vote in favor of the 2013 Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744). It would have provided some of the undocumented immigrants living in America a pathway to citizenship which would have taken at least 13 years.

At the time, the so-called "gang of eight," a coalition of four Republican and four Democratic senators, touted the bill as a sweeping fix for the country’s flawed immigration system.

The bill proposed the following steps to citizenship:

  • Registered provisional immigrant status: Anyone who had entered the country prior to Jan. 1, 2012, could apply for this status. Approval of the application was contingent on an applicant paying assessed taxes, application fees and a $1,000 penalty. A background check excluded applicants who had been convicted of a felony, three or more misdemeanor offenses, certain foreign offenses or unlawful voting.
  • Permanent resident: After maintaining provisional status for a 10-year minimum, they could apply for lawful permanent resident status, commonly known as a green card.
  • Citizenship: After at least three years, a lawful permanent resident could apply for full citizenship.

The bill would have also allocated $46.3 billion in border security, doubled the number of border agents, imposed fines on immigrants seeking citizenship and created a merit-based visa category, among other measures.

It passed the Senate 68-32, but died in the House.

Did McCaskill vote for amnesty?

Although the bill would have laid out a path to citizenship, the experts we talked to said it was a stretch to call it amnesty as the Senate Leadership Fund did.

"I do think this is a type of amnesty, but I would hesitate before using amnesty in our current political environment because it has been so heavily criticized," said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

"Amnesty tends to indicate that you’re talking about giving someone a benefit that they don’t deserve," Pierce said.

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Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed.

"The whole point of the Senate bill was to create a whole series of hurdles that people who were here without status would have to jump through, including background checks, paying significant fines, waiting long periods of times," he said. "It was all linked to securing the border."

The ‘amnesty’ precedent of 1986

Alden noted that critics of the 2013 bill might liken it to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

The 1986 bill, signed into law by Republican President Ronald Reagan, gave the approximately 3 million unauthorized immigrants who had arrived in the country prior to Jan. 1, 1982, a chance to apply for citizenship. As a result of its passage, 2.7 million people obtained permanent residency status, according to a report from the Migration Policy Institute.

"(Senate bill 744) was also closely tied to meeting border security benchmarks, whereas the  Immigration Reform and Control Act legalization had no strings attached," Alden said in an email.

Unlike the bill McCaskill voted for five years ago, Alden said the Reagan-era law did not "prevent people from coming illegally in the future or from working in the United States even if they didn’t have status."

"To conflate this with the amnesty President Reagan signed is a misreading of what (the 2013 bill) contained," Alden said.

As for the Senate Leadership Fund’s claim that 11 million people would have benefitted from the bill’s pathway to citizenship, experts agreed that’s also a stretch.

"Not everyone would have been able to meet those requirements and pay those fees (to get citizenship)," said Kate Voigt, associate director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Voigt said the lengthy process combined with strict background check requirements would have prevented all from qualifying.

Our ruling

In 2013, McCaskill voted for a bill that would have given undocumented immigrants living in the country a path, albeit a long one, to citizenship. The Senate Leadership Fund’s claim that she joined "the liberals" in supporting a bill that would have given "amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants" is deceptive for three reasons:

First, the bill was branded as a bipartisan solution to immigration reform and co-sponsored by four Republican and four Democratic senators.

Second, the bill included numerous hurdles unauthorized immigrants would have had to overcome, including fines and background checks, before becoming eligible for full citizenship. Experts say it is a loose interpretation of blanket residency.

Lastly, in 2013 there were approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, but given the exclusions and restrictions included in the 2013 bill, not all of them would have qualified to start the citizenship process under the Senate bill’s guidelines.

For those reasons we rate this claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

Cooper, Betsy and Kevin O’Neil. "Lessons from the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986." Policy brief. Migration Policy Institute, 2005.

Email interview with Robert Suros, professor at the University of Southern California Annenburg School for Communication and Journalism and director of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute. Oct. 11, 2018.

Phone interview with Stephen Legomsky, John S. Lehmann University Professor Emeritus at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. Oct. 10, 2018.

Phone interview with Edward Alden, senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations. Oct. 10, 2018 and Oct. 30, 2018.

Phone interview with Kate Voigt, associate director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Oct. 29, 2018.

Phone interview with Sarah Pierce, policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. Oct. 29, 2018.

Roll call vote summary. U.S. Senate bill 744 (Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act). 113th Congress. June 27, 2013.

Sherman, Amy. "Was Adam Putnam, candidate for Florida governor, for amnesty on immigration?" PolitiFact Florida, July 24, 2017.

Senate Leadership Fund. Campaign advertisement. Sep. 11, 2018.

Text of U.S. Senate bill 744(Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act). 113th Congress. Introduced April 16, 2013.

Text of U.S. Senate bill 1244 (Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986). 99th U.S. Congress. Passed Nov. 6, 1986 (Public Law No: 99-603).

Tobias, Manuela. "Did Indiana's Joe Donnelly vote to grant amnesty to criminals?" PolitiFact. Sep. 12, 2018.

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