“There was a time when John McCain told it to us straight. Not anymore. … John McCain has been on every side of immigration.”

— campaign ad by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.)

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is set to face his toughest reelection fight this fall, probably against Democratic challenger Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick. In this recent ad, the Kirkpatrick campaign used video clips of McCain appearing to flip-flop on his support for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (Dream) Act, which would allow people who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents to earn a path to legal status. (We spotted this ad on the Political TV Ad Archive, our partner for tracking primary election ads.)

First, it shows a clip of McCain from 2008 during an event with pro-immigration activists. He is asked, “I wanted to know if you would support the Dream Act that we’re trying to pass.” McCain answers, “Yes, yes.”

Then it shows a clip from 2011, with McCain saying during a CNN interview: “It’s foolish to move forward with something like the Dream Act,” and shows he voted against it in 2010. Then it shows a clip from a 2010 McCain campaign ad — he says, “Complete the danged fence” — that indicated his commitment to border security over legalizing immigrants. Then it shows that McCain again supports “legalization process, especially with the so-called dreamers,” in 2016 — and argues that McCain has been “on every side of immigration.”

Has McCain flip-flopped on the Dream Act over the years, as the ad claims?

The Facts

Immigration reform includes many components, and has been introduced in waves over many years. McCain has been involved in immigration reform efforts for over a decade — but his specific policy and rhetorical focus have changed over time based on the politics of the vote or campaign. We’ve compiled his major efforts and stances in a timeline below.

2003-2005: McCain supported legalization plans for undocumented immigrants since 2003, and he co-sponsored stand-alone Dream Act legislation in 2003 and 2005.

2006-2007: McCain co-sponsored a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). It included a guest worker program, pathway to legalization and border security. McCain said lawmakers need to separate economic immigrants from security risks, and that he did not believe the Senate should pass an “enforcement only” bill. The 2007 bill failed.

Late 2007: McCain changed his position during his presidential campaign. He had used his maverick persona to become the leading Republican supporter for comprehensive immigration reform, but the approach was unpopular with many Republicans, and he began losing support, The Arizona Republic reported. McCain distanced himself from his previous proposals for legalization, and focused on border security.

2008: McCain began saying borders “needed to be secured first, before any solution for the illegal immigrants already here is addressed,” the New York Times reported in May. But McCain also showed compassion for those already in the country illegally, calling them “God’s children,” and said that the issue needs to be solved.

The July 2008 clip in the Kirkpatrick ad comes from McCain’s speech to the pro-immigration National Council of La Raza, a strong proponent of the Dream Act. McCain addressed the 2007 bill in his speech:

I don’t want to fail again to achieve comprehensive immigration reform. We must prove we have the resources to secure our borders and use them, while respecting the dignity and rights of citizens and legal residents of the United States. When we have achieved our border security goal, we must enact and implement the other parts of practical, fair and necessary immigration policy. We have economic and humanitarian responsibilities as well, and they require no less dedication from us in meeting them.

Then a young activist asked whether he would support the Dream Act. As described by the Los Angeles Times:

“Yes. Yes,” he replied, then added a sentiment that he incorporated into almost every answer: “I would also enforce existing laws of our country, and the nation’s first requirement is the nation’s security, and that’s why you have to have our borders secured.”

The “yes, yes” portion was used in the ad, without the second portion. Interestingly, McCain said he would enforce existing laws, rather than saying he wanted tougher laws on border security.

2010-2011: After his 2008 loss, McCain ran for Senate reelection in 2010 and took a hard turn toward border security. Immigration was a hot issue in Arizona that year, when the state’s tough immigration law took effect. McCain supported that law and pushed for border security over other reform measures. McCain and then-Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) introduced a 10-point border-security plan, including deploying 3,000 National Guard troops to the border. (This was a shift from 2001, when McCain had said he did not support deploying troops to the border.)

Facing repeated attacks about his 2007 stance from an immigration hard-liner in the primary, McCain launched a now-memorable campaign ad. “Complete the danged fence,” McCain says while walking along the U.S.-Mexico border. This ad was intended to assure conservatives of his tough stance on border security, and pro-immigration activists saw it as confirmation that McCain had done a complete reversal on immigration.

In 2010, McCain acknowledged he had changed his mind. But he still left himself room to support “other elements of reform.” By this point, pro-immigration advocates say “border security” was used as a rhetorical point to draw a line between those who supported and opposed immigration.

He did vote against a stand-alone 2010 Dream Act, as the Kirkpatrick ad claims. His campaign told The Fact Checker this week that McCain voted against it because he thinks the Dream Act is “one part of the immigration issue, a part that cannot be fixed without addressing a variety of other problems plaguing our immigration system through comprehensive immigration reform.”

Here is the full context of the January 2011 interview cited in the Kirkpatrick ad (the portion in the ad is emphasized in bold). As readers can see, McCain did not outwardly abandon the Dream Act, but he again said he wouldn’t support it without border security:

Host John King: I would expect the president tonight, I’m told, to say that maybe we can bring back the Dream Act, which would help illegal immigrants who came into this country at a very young age, if they join the military, if they’re on the college track, that they could be granted a path to citizenship. You would not work with the president on that in the lame-duck session. The White House would very much like your help. Can they get it?
McCain: If we secure the borders and we can secure the borders. We have not secured our borders. If we don’t have secure borders, John, then five, 10, 15 years from now we’re dealing with another group of young Americans who were brought here illegally by their parents. So it’s foolish to move forward with something like the Dream Act until we get the borders secured, and we can. And with people and surveillance and with fences, we can do it.

The 2010 Dream Act failed. Components of the Dream Act were incorporated into the 2013 Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration bill, which passed the Senate but was not taken up by the House. McCain was a member of the Gang of Eight, a group of bipartisan lawmakers who shepherded it through the Senate.

Now, in his 2016 reelection campaign, McCain again has taken a tougher tone on immigration.

“He’s tried a lot of different ways to get this legislation [the Dream Act] passed — a lot. Being a legislator, that’s what you’ve got to do. You have to get creative, you have to respond to the political realities of the time,” a McCain spokesman said. “He consistently has been supportive of the idea of giving children that were brought here by their parents a pathway to citizenship — throughout his entire career. At different points, there were different ways that that could be politically achieved. But he’s never shied away from that.”

D.B. Mitchell, a Kirkpatrick campaign spokesman, noted the senator’s shift in rhetoric about the Dream Act.

“When John McCain was directly asked by a dreamer if he would support the Dream Act, McCain didn’t hesitate to respond yes. Then, when McCain was up for reelection in 2010, he said it was ‘foolish’ to pass the Dream Act, and he voted against it,” Mitchell said. “That’s not straight talk, that’s political convenience, and it’s just more proof that John McCain has changed after 33 years in Washington.”

The Pinocchio Test

The ad uses two clips from 2008 and 2011 to show that McCain had supported the Dream Act in 2008, then opposed in 2011. By using McCain’s words — “Yes, yes” in 2008 and “it’s foolish to move forward” in 2011 — the ad makes it seem as though McCain clearly flip-flopped within three years. But using these snippets lack context and do not show that both times, McCain said that his support for the Dream Act is conditional upon border security.

In 2008, he did tell a questioner that he would support the Dream Act being passed — but he added the caveat that he also supports strong border-security laws. He did oppose the Dream Act in 2010, when he thought it would not pass without a border-security component. But McCain continued to show that he is open to pursuing further reform measures — such as providing a pathway to legalization for dreamers — down the line.

A lot has changed since 2003, when McCain co-sponsored a stand-alone Dream Act. We understand that politicians may genuinely evolve on issues over their political career. But we also know that politicians use rhetoric to speak out of both sides of their mouths based on the political climate at the time. In McCain’s case, we see a bit of both.

It’s fair for the Kirkpatrick campaign to say that McCain’s rhetoric has shifted over the years. But it’s an exaggeration to portray it as if McCain was totally on board in 2008, completely abandoned dreamers in 2010, and then came back in 2016 because he’s running for reelection.

We especially frown on the Kirkpatrick campaign’s snip-and-clip job of McCain’s own words to spin his record into the message they want to portray. That kind of misleading editing almost automatically qualifies for two Pinocchios under our standards. If we awarded half-Pinocchios, this ad would qualify for two and a half — but it does not quite rise to three.

Frankly, if the Kirkpatrick campaign wants to show McCain’s stance has evolved over the years, they have plenty of other examples they can use without resorting to this clip job.

Two Pinocchios

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