Clinton errs in claim that no GOP contender wants path to citizenship

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“Not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship. Not one.”

— Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, May 5, 2015, in an appearance at a high school in Las Vegas, Nev.

During a visit to a school in Nevada, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton positioned herself as an uncompromising advocate for immigration — and in the process, she took a shot at the Republican presidential field for not joining her.

“This is where I differ with everybody on the Republican side,” Clinton said during the May 5 event. “Make no mistake: Not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship. Not one. When they talk about legal status, that is code for second-class status.”

We decided to take a closer look at where the GOP field stands on the issue.

We’ll start by noting that Clinton made some careful word choices here.

First, she explicitly distinguishes between eventual “citizenship” and a grant of “legal status.” Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is that citizens would be able to vote, while people with legalized status would not.

Second, Clinton emphasized that she’s referring to Republican candidates who have “clearly and consistently” articulated support for a path to citizenship.

We found that the Republican candidates and potential candidates generally fell into three categories.

1. Those who unambiguously support a path to citizenship

We quickly found one exception to Clinton’s formulation: Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who isn’t officially in the race but has said he’s likely to run.

Graham — who had been a leading Republican supporter of the immigration legislation that passed the Senate but died in the House — “has been clear about … his support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants that includes registering with the government, paying fines, learning English and undergoing background checks,” said Brittany Bramell, a spokeswoman for Security Through Strength, a pro-Graham group.

2. Those who have never supported a path to citizenship

Some GOP candidates or potential candidates do not appear to have ever explicitly articulated support for a path for citizenship. They include Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

3. Those who have expressed support for a path to citizenship but have since reversed themselves or expressed ambiguous views.

  • Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. In 2013, Walker was asked by The Wausau Daily Herald, "Can you envision a world where, with the right penalties and waiting periods and meet the requirements, where those people could get citizenship?" He answered, "Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think it makes sense."

But Walker backed away from that stance during appearances this year on ABC’s “This Week” and “Fox News Sunday.” On Fox, he said, “My view has changed.”

  • Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. In January, Huckabee said: "I don't believe that it is a just thing to punish someone who had nothing to do with the breaking of the law. What I want to do is see what can we do to put that person in a position where they do abide by the law and become a citizen."

On other occasions, Huckabee has framed himself more as a critic of immigration.

  • New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. In 2010, Christie said on ABC's "This Week" that the president and Congress "have to secure our borders, and they have to put forward a common-sense path to citizenship for people." But in 2013, Christie sidestepped repeated questions about whether he still held the same view during another appearance on "This Week."
  • Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Jindal wrote in 2013 that "for folks who came here illegally but are willing to gain proficiency in English, pay a fine, and demonstrate a willingness to assimilate, we should require them to work here and pay taxes for a substantial period of time after obtaining legal status before they have the opportunity to begin the process of applying for U.S. citizenship." Jindal, however, opposed the Senate bill that would have created a path to citizenship.
  • Physician Ben Carson. Carson has been widely quoted in the conservative media saying he would "of course allow (illegal immigrants) to have a pathway to citizenship. That's the only humane and reasonable thing to do." The time and place of that comment, however, is not clear.

Hardest to characterize are the two candidates from Florida: former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio.

  • As PolitiFact Florida has noted, Bush has flip-flopped extensively on the question of a path for citizenship.

In the 2013 book “Immigration Wars,” Bush and his co-author, Clint Bolick, wrote that permanent residency “should not lead to citizenship. It is absolutely vital to the integrity of our immigration system that actions have consequences — in this case, that those who violated the laws can remain but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship.”

But following the book’s release, Bush backtracked. He supported the Senate bill that included a path to citizenship.

As recently as March, Bush told reporters in New Hampshire that he could support a path to citizenship.

He’s made some contrary statements, though.

At a Politics and Eggs breakfast in New Hampshire in April, Bush pushed for “earned legal status.”

“Not earned citizenship,” Bush said, “but earned legal status.”

  • Rubio was one of the leading Republicans supporting the Senate immigration bill that included a path to citizenship.

Asked for his reaction to Clinton’s claim, Rubio spokesman Alex Conant referred us to several pieces of evidence.

One was a January interview with The New York Times Magazine in which Rubio was asked, “Are you dropping the idea of citizenship for those who came here illegally?” He responded, “Once you have permanent residency, which is a green card, existing law allows you to apply for citizenship.”

But during a National Review Institute event in May, Rubio didn’t use the term “citizenship.” He said that after “securing the border” and “modernizing” the legal immigration system, “what you would get is the equivalent of a nonimmigrant, nonpermanent work visa to be in the U.S. and you would have to be in that status for a significant period of time. And at some point, if you choose, you could apply for permanent residency, but you’d have to do it through that modernized legal immigration system and you’d have to do it just like everybody else, not a special process or anything of that nature.”

Our ruling

Clinton is telling voters who want a path to citizenship that there’s no one on the Republican side who supports that issue. That is not accurate. There is one — Graham. She does have a point that the other dozen or so candidates either have never backed a path to citizenship or have sent mixed signals.

On balance, we rate Clinton’s claim Mostly False.