In the debate over immigration, amnesty is an epithet, hurled by one side, dodged at all costs by the other. The scarlet letter “A,” one congressman calls it.
Which is why supporters of Senate legislation say they favor an “earned path to citizenship” for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Why an advocacy group calls itself the “Essential Worker Immigration Coalition.”
And why President Bush talks about a comprehensive approach to immigration — details undisclosed — that moves “beyond tired choices and the harsh attitudes of the past.”
Critics who ascribe amnesty to the bill are “trying to find hot buttons to push,” pollster Celinda Lake recently told reporters. “I’m surprised some people don’t call it gay marriage, too.”
More than election-year word play is at stake as Congress struggles toward the first major overhaul of immigration laws in two decades.
In the Senate, at least, victory probably will belong to any group of 60 lawmakers supporting an approach they comfortably can claim is less than amnesty.
Bush’s agreement with their definition, or at least his acquiescence, is essential to their success. That is especially so if a compromise is to emerge from negotiations with the House. Majority Republicans there have passed legislation calling for criminal penalties for people illegally in the U.S. and for a fence along stretches of the U.S.-Mexican border to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States.
By contrast, legislation before the full Senate begins with steps to strengthen border protection and omits the criminal penalties. It envisions an increase in the flow of future immigrants into the U.S., in temporary guest worker programs.
Of greatest contention is letting illegal aliens who were in the U.S. before Jan. 7, 2004, seek citizenship without first returning to their home country.
They would be required to pay fines, show they were current on their taxes, learn English and meet other tests, including waiting their turn behind immigrants legally in the U.S.
Critics say that would forgive years of lawbreaking and encourage future immigrants to come to the U.S. illegally in the hope that they, too, would be forgiven one day.
In 1986, legislation “required illegal aliens to pay a fee, to learn English, to improve themselves by working in this country for a set time,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. “Everyone agrees on two points,” he added. “No. 1, they agree it was amnesty. And No. 2, they agree it was a complete and total failure.”
A second Southern conservative, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said the measure includes four separate amnesty provisions. “It should be called ‘no illegal alien left behind,” said Sessions, whose detailed criticism has been one of the main elements of the first few days of debate.
The highest-decibel clash so far has been among Republicans, at a time when Bush issues near-daily pleas for lawmakers to conduct a dignified debate on an issue of such importance to the fast-growing Hispanic voting population.
In the House, more than a dozen conservative Republicans warned repeatedly at a news conference their party courts disaster at the polls if they embrace amnesty. “Many of those who have stood for the Republican Party for the last decade are not only angry. They will be absent in November” when it comes time to vote, said Rep. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona.
Democrats fear a political trap in which they will be forced to choose between measures making the borders more secure and cracking down on immigrants.
“The president has a moral obligation to rein in the right-wing extremists in his party and stop this divisive rhetoric about immigrants,” says Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Democrats must decide whether to seek a compromise that would allow Republicans to claim a legislative achievement and raise their standing with the public before the midterm congressional elections.
The most difficult issue probably will revolve around the conditions under which illegal immigrants may apply for citizenship.
Some lawmakers want an applicant, who may have been in the U.S. for years, to return to his home country first. If so, for how long? What happens to any family members? For example, children born in the United States are already citizens.
The stricter the terms, the assumption is that fewer individuals will step forward, thus defeating one of the bill’s major purposes.
The more lenient the terms, the more senators may find it difficult to rebut the amnesty charge.
“People don’t want to be associated with something that is unpopular” such as amnesty, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who supported the legislation in committee.
He spoke not long after House members of his own party made their own feelings clear.
“Anybody that votes for an amnesty bill deserves to be branded with a scarlet letter ’A,”’ said Iowa Rep. Steve King, evoking the stern, swift judgment of the Puritans.