No, Marco Rubio's reform plan does not give free cell phones to immigrants

There will be much to say about what is found in Senator Marco Rubio’s immigration reform proposal, but one thing it does not contain, contrary to rumors, is a plan to hand out free cell phones to immigrants.

The section of the bill that excited this controversy is Section 1107(a), “Access to Emergency Personnel: Southwest Border Region Emergency Communications Grants.”  As quoted by Javier Manjarres at The Shark Tank, it reads as follows:

The Secretary, in consultation with the governors of the States in the Southwest Border region, shall establish a 2-year grant program, to be administered by the Secretary, to improve emergency communications in the Southwest

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.

I happened to be reading Manjarres’ post just as Rubio’s office issued an official response, and the first thing that jumped out at me was that the quoted language does not propose funding “cell phones”; it’s talking about satellite phones, which are not the same thing.  An explicit requirement for living or working in desolate areas that don’t receive cell-phone service is also set.

This is a very far cry from the outrageously abused Lifeline program that tossed out free cell phones to welfare recipients, largely on the honor system until recent reforms, which meant some individuals were strolling away with half a dozen “free” phones.  It’s not surprising that people would be nervous about another Lifeline boodoggle taking root, but that’s not what we have here.  It wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep an eye on this language, and every paragraph of the bill’s 844 pages, to make sure it doesn’t mutate as rolls through the radioactive mad-science laboratories of Congress, and it’s fair enough to ask if this provision really belongs in an immigration reform bill, but we should characterize its current language accurately.

Rubio’s official response:

In addition to enhancing technology and fencing at the border, the ???Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013??? includes a provision to give rural residents and business owners near the Mexican border access to cell service and phones so they can quickly report border violence to the police and the Department of Homeland Security. This provision was included in the ???Border Security Enforcement Act of 2011???, in response to the case of Robert Krentz, an Arizona rancher who was murdered on his property and did not have the ability to communicate directly with law enforcement because of his rural location. Giving people living and working on the Mexican border the ability to communicate directly with law enforcement is important to securing our border.

As transcribed at his website, Rubio also addressed the issue in conversation with radio host Laura Ingraham:

Ingraham: ???That???s alright. Eligibility for grants, because in 844 pages, as you can imagine, there???s quite a lot of interesting nuggets in here. You actually can be eligible for a grant for a phone, it looks like. A two year grant program to receive a cellular phone. And articles this morning, as you can imagine, are fairly amusing. ???Move over Obama phone, this is the amnesty phone.??? What???s going on with that????

Rubio: ???That???s false. That???s not for the illegal immigrants. That???s for U.S. citizens and residents who live in the border region so that they can have access to calls. One of their complaints ??? that???s actually part of the Kyl border bill that we adopted. And what it does is it provides communication equipment to people who are living in the border region so they can report illegal crossings because many of them either don???t have phone service or don???t have cell phone service and they have no way of calling.???

Ingraham: ???I know it???s not for the illegal immigrants, but it???s an outlay of money, is it not????

Rubio: ???Well again, that???s part of a border security package. That all of which is paid for by the fees and fines we are charging as part of this program. That is actually a border security measure that we have adopted and it???s involved to help rural citizens who live along the border that have access to communication equipment so they can call police and they can report border violence. Because one of the complaints we got from the border region is they don???t have any way to communicate with police or border patrol in time if they see something happening on the border. So this is designed to help in that regard. It???s not some effort to provide phone service to anybody.???

“I’m not even sure why that’s even in here,” Ingraham went on to say. Which, as mentioned earlier, is a fair question, and one I would repeat like a speed-addicted parrot if I were ever allowed within the halls of Congress, which is why I will probably never be allowed within the halls of Congress.

Rubio pointed out that his bill is pointedly meant to address border security as well as immigration reform, and this sat-phone plan can be readily seen as part of the security strategy.  Sadly, as a skeptic of the whole comprehensive immigration reform business, I would venture that it might be one of the few elements of the security strategy that will actually produce verifiable results.  We’ll be able to find out where those sat phones are used, and who gets called on them.  Couldn’t the bill specify that the phones be locked into contacting only emergency services, police, Border Patrol, etc?  Would it be unreasonable to limit the program’s beneficiaries to U.S. citizens, not resident aliens with work permits, if language elsewhere in the bill does not already do so?