“You worked hard, all your life. You paid into Social Security. You counted on it being there — for you. But liberals in Washington want to let illegal immigrants get Social Security for work they did with forged identities. And when they needed one vote, they got it — from Sen. Mark Pryor. On illegal immigration, Mark Pryor never takes your side.”

–voiceover of new ad from the Tom Cotton (R) for Senate campaign

The Senate race in Arkansas is getting increasingly nasty. While the Fact Checker was on break, Sen. Mark Pryor issued an ad that falsely suggested that Rep. Tom Cotton, his GOP opponent, was responsible for the spread of the Ebola virus because of a vote he had cast. The ad was widely criticized in the state, and earned a “mostly false” rating from PolitiFact.

Now, Cotton has fired back with his own misleading ad. It opens with grainy, sepia-toned images of workers in apparently a bygone time, and then charges that Pryor (and “liberals in Washington,” as the ad flashes images of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and President Obama) want to give Social Security benefits “for work they did with forged identities.”

As it turns out, this stems from a 2006 vote, before Obama was president, and it is a claim that has been repeatedly debunked by fact checkers. It even made FactCheck.org’s “Whoppers of 2006.” But that hasn’t stopped the Cotton campaign from dredging up the muck again.

The Facts

The ad first appears to preying on fears about the long-term viability of Social Security, much like Democratic attack ads that claim Republicans such as Cotton want to “privatize” the old-age program. But then it veers into a slam on Pryor’s alleged support for illegal immigrants.

Undocumented workers are not eligible for Social Security. Yet with few exceptions, workers in the United States must pay a portion of their earnings to Social Security, which is matched by their employer. Thus workers in the country illegally who have fraudulent or unauthorized Social Security numbers are paying into the system, but do not get any benefits.

Still, until the law was changed in 2008, the Social Security Administration would process claims for credit for those payments in benefit calculations if a formerly illegal immigrant became a legal resident — and the worker could prove he or she had made payments to the Social Security system.

That’s why this ad has to reach back to a vote in 2006.  At the urging of then President George W. Bush, Congress was trying to pass a comprehensive immigration bill. David Ray, a Cotton campaign spokesman, pointed to an account in the Christian Science Monitor of one important week in the debate as evidence for the fact that Pryor cast a crucial vote at the behest of liberal advocates.

The newspaper described how Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), a foe of the immigration bill, “took the bill’s core supporters by surprise” by offering an amendment that would prevent undocumented immigrants in the United States from claiming Social Security credit for the years they worked with forged Social Security numbers. The move was intended to break apart a fragile bipartisan coalition for the bill. The newspaper added:

The vote count was 49-49, when Sen. Mark Pryor (D) of Arkansas was walking up the steps toward the Senate floor. “Hurry! We need your vote!” cried a Democratic staffer, who had been tracking the vote no one expected would be so close. With Senator Pryor’s vote, the amendment was defeated [50-49].

The very next paragraph offers an observation from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a supporter of the bill, who along with 10 other Republicans voted against the Ensign amendment: “A lot of us took tough votes where we would have liked to vote the other way, but we didn’t, because we wanted to hold the coalition together.”

In other word’s Pryor’s vote was part of an effort to defeat a poison pill amendment — and he was joined by a number of Republicans who wanted to keep the bill intact. (For the record, Obama, then a senator, also voted against the amendment.) The broader immigration bill ultimately passed the Senate by a vote of 62-36, but never became law.

But that’s not the whole story. In 2007, Ensign twice offered a version of his amendment again — and both times, Pryor voted for it. When Ensign altered his proposal so that it barred the Social Security Administration from spending money to process such back claims from formerly undocumented immigrants, he scored an overwhelming 92-2 victory. The provision remains in law, and the SSA refers to it as the “Ensign amendment.”

That’s still not the end of the story. Remember the 2013 debate over a comprehensive immigration law? Yet another amendment sought to make the ban on receiving past credit permanent (the Ensign Amendment, after all, just prevents the spending of money to process claims). Pryor not only voted for this amendment, but he was listed as a cosponsor as well.

To recap, workers who are in the country illegally cannot get Social Security benefits, even if they have paid into the system. They can no longer get credit for those payments even if they become legal residents — because of a change in the law that Pryor supported. Moreover, there is currently no effort in Congress or the Obama administration to change that reality.

The Pinocchio Test

Why would a campaign rehash a claim that has been so thoroughly discredited? Polls clearly must show that the allegation moves voters, enough so the campaign tries to bulldoze past the facts.

Voters need to be especially wary of claims that appear to be largely based on votes from many years ago. Cotton is highlighting a minor vote from eight years ago, ignoring Pryor’s more recent and more substantive votes — not to mention the fact that law was changed to prevent the processing of such claims.

Moreover, no matter what one might think of the initial vote, there’s certainly no justification for the ad to assert that “on illegal immigration, Pryor never takes your side” — given that he voted three out of four times against undocumented immigrants on this issue.

For reviving a long-discredited claim, in the face of contrary facts, the Cotton campaign earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios


(About our rating scale)

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Follow The Fact Checker on Twitter and friend us on Facebook