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These fact checks of North Carolina politics are a collaboration between PolitiFact and WRAL. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition.

Fact Check: Sen. Tillis Claims President Biden's Immigration Bill Grants 'Mass Amnesty'

Thom Tillis
@SenThomTillis
/
Twitter
NC Sen. Thom Tillis visited the Southern border in late March to draw attention to the influx of people crossing the border seeking amnesty.

It's time now for a fact check of North Carolina politics. This week, we're looking at Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis' claim that President Biden is attempting to grant "mass amnesty to immigrants who are in the country illegally." Tillis made that claim in a recent op-ed on Fox News criticizing the president's immigration policy. And joining us to separate fact from fiction is WRAL's Paul Specht.

Marshall Terry: Paul, in this op-ed, Tillis said the president attempted to grant mass amnesty via a bill he sent to Congress. What bill is he talking about and what would it do?

Paul Specht: That's right. This bill is the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021. And it was introduced by a Democrat in Congress, but it was introduced on behalf of President Biden. So it's his bill. And what it does is offer two paths to citizenship and one is faster than the other. But only some people can take the expedited path, if you will.

The plan would offer an eight-year path to every undocumented immigrant living in the U.S., and that's about 11 million people. They would all be required to pay taxes, pass background checks and do other things associated with gaining citizenship in order to become permanent residents by the end of that eight years.

Now, the fast track, the expressway, if you will, is a three-year path, and that would only apply to three million people. And those people are farm workers, immigrants who arrived here illegally — but when they were children, they're known as Dreamers — and it also would affect people who are here on a temporary protected status designation. That's a little in the weeds.

But the thing to remember is there's an eight-year path for everyone and a three-year path for about 3 (million) of the 11 million immigrants.

Terry: So was Tillis right when he said this bill would grant mass amnesty to undocumented immigrants?

Specht: Now, we reached out to political experts across the spectrum — the libertarian right, immigration attorneys on the left — and to a T, they all said amnesty has sort of lost its meaning as a word. It's sort of like "conservative" or "liberal." What does that mean? It can be applied to a lot of different things, depending on who's saying it and what it's being applied to. So the word "amnesty," we found it hard to put an exact definition on.

These experts we spoke to said, you know, everything is sort of compared in modern history to President Reagan's bill in 1986. What it did was grant 2.7 million people permanent residence. That's known as the Immigration Reform and Control Act or the IRCA. What it did basically was anyone who had been in the country continuously for about four years and who also paid a fine and back-taxes and demonstrated what they called at the time as "good moral character," they were allowed to go on this path to be granted legal status.

So that is the standard that we compare everything to today. At least that's what experts told me. They said if you want to look at what is considered amnesty in modern days, look at Reagan's bill in 1986.

So we did that. We looked at Biden's plan and said, how does this compare? And we did not get a straight answer or a consensus among our experts. Some thought Biden's was more lenient. A couple of thought Biden's was stricter. And then a couple said, you know what, times have changed so much that it's hard to compare the two bills because there's just so much more that experts and our government has learned about immigration trends that Biden's bill tries to address, that Reagan did not have to address back in the 1980s.

Terry: So how did you rate this claim by Sen. Thom Tillis?

Specht: On balance, we rated this claim "half-true." And what I mean by "on balance" is the word "amnesty" is squishy and so Tillis using it could give a misleading impression of what Biden's bill actually does. And so we're starting off from a place of uncertainty with this word because it is so vague.

On the other hand, he does have a point. This bill, some see as more lenient than Reagan's bill or definitely more lenient than the so-called Gang of Eight bill from 2013 that never became law. Reagan's bill is the benchmark, but experts unanimously told us Biden's bill today is more lenient than the Gang of Eight bill, and it might be more lenient than Reagan's bill in 1986. So on balance, "half-true."

Terry: Would you have assigned a different rating had Tillis pointed out in his op-ed that Biden's bill would grant amnesty only after three years for some immigrants and after eight years for others, as you mentioned earlier?

Specht: You know, that's a good question. I don't assign the ratings. People may not know this, but one fact checker such as myself or any one reporter for PolitiFact does not assign the rating. That's not how it works. What happens is the reporter does research and then they put it all together. They bring it to three editors and say, here's what I found. And then the editors vote on what they think the rating should be.

And so in this case, they voted "half-true." But it wasn't consensus. It was a 2-to-1 vote with one of our editors thinking that maybe this could be considered "mostly true." People can go on PolitiFact.com and click on the words "Our Process" if they want to see how things are voted on and what qualifies as "half-true," "mostly true" or "true."

But it's very possible that this could have gotten a better rating or that Tillis could have gotten a more favorable rating if he had just explained a little more about what Biden's bill does.

Terry: All right. Thank you, Paul.

Specht: Thank you for having me.

These fact checks are a collaboration between PolitiFact and WRAL. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition. Do you want to know more about politics in North Carolina? Sign up here to have WFAE's weekly Inside Politics newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.