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Rumor Check: No, Marco Rubio Isn't Trying to Give Immigrants Free Cell Phones


We break it down.

.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) talks to reporters on Capitol Hill March 22, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Senate is scheduled to vote on amendments to the budget resolution on Friday afternoon and into the evening. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Sen. Marco Rubio. (Getty Images)

The conservative blogosphere on Wednesday erupted after it was "reported" that the immigration bill championed by Republican Senator Marco Rubio contains a provision that provides free cell phones (dubbed “Marcophones”) to immigrants allowed to enter the United States under a work visa.

One conservative blog went so far as to say that “Tracphone, a company … based in Rubio’s Miami, Florida,” will “likely benefit from this type of government program,” clearly hinting that crony capitalism may be involved.

But let’s take a look at these hints, allegations, and things left unsaid.

First, here's the section of the 844-page immigration bill referenced in these “Marcophone” reports [emphasis added]:

ELIGIBILITY FOR GRANTS.—An individual  is eligible to receive a grant under this subsection if the individual demonstrates that he or she— (A) regularly resides or works in the Southwest Border region;  is at greater risk of border violence due to the lack of cellular service at his or her residence or business and his or her proximity to the Southern border. (3) USE OF GRANTS.—Grants awarded under this subsection may be used to purchase satellite telephone communications systems and service  that— (A) can provide access to 9–1–1 service; and  (B) are equipped with global positioning

Conservative author David Freddoso breaks it down for us [full disclosure: I used to work for him as a research assistant].

“The provision in question,” Freddoso notes, citing a recent interview between Rubio and conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham, “is designed so that ranchers and farmers along rural areas of the border (say, in Arizona) can report illegal crossings and violence, which are a big problem there.”

Wait, what?

“Many of the areas are very remote and lack cell phone coverage. A rancher in his pickup who noticed, say, 50 heavily armed cartel goons running across his land would probably have no way to phone it in to authorities. Hence the grants for purchasing satellite phones — which are not cheap,” Freddoso adds.

In other words, the cell phone provision isn’t meant for immigrants here on work visas. It’s meant for U.S. citizens who need to report illegal border activity.

He continues:

Based on a quick search of the legislative database, Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) appear to have first proposed the language in May 2010 … Their bill, S. 3332 (“Border Security Enforcement Act of 2010″), contained no immigration provisions at all — just border security measures, including the phones, grants to towns along the border and deployment of 3,000 additional National Guardsmen at the border.


In order to please immigration hawks, the old border security bill was folded into the comprehensive immigration bill this year, so that senators could show they were doing something to crack down on illegal border crossings

That's right: Sen. Rubio wasn’t even responsible for crafting the cell phone provision. In fact, he wasn’t even in the U.S. Senate when it was first proposed. He was still a primary candidate.

Okay, now let’s take a look at the “Tracphone” allegation. For this, we turn to conservative blogger Gabriel Malor.

First, it’s important to remember that the bill specifically calls for "satellite telephone communications systems and service" because areas along the border don’t get normal cell reception.

And here's where it gets even more interesting: "Tracphone," as the one outlet mentions, is a satellite cellular product of KVH Industries -- which is based in Rhode Island.

"Tracfone," as Malor notes, is indeed based in Miami, but they don't do satellite phones. "Tracphone" (Rhode Island) does.

In short, Rubio's home state doesn't stand to gain anything from the cell phone provision in the immigration bill.

So what happened here? Well, as Freddoso puts it, this is what can happen when “non-lawyers [attempt] to read and interpret legislation without the help of experts.”

That might be a little strong. But maybe it points to a larger issue: American citizens have long complained about politicians hiding behind massive bills that use shadowy language to shelter pet projects. Some have come to expect it, and when the language isn't always clear, it paves the way for misinterpretation.

You can read Sen. Rubio’s full explanation to Ingraham here.

Follow Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) on Twitter

Featured image Getty Images. This post has been updated.

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