“Amnesty”: Let’s Define Our Terms

With the immigration reform debate heating up again on Capitol Hill, it’s essential politicians define terms accurately and truthfully for their constituents.  When politicians talk about “amnesty,” “legal status,” and “path to citizenship,” what do they mean?

Some have defined amnesty, narrowly, as granting an illegal immigrant immediate citizenship with the stroke of a pen. However, amnesty can come in many different forms, and often, it is a more gradual process.  In any form, it is unfair to those waiting patiently to come here legally, and it is unfair to current American citizens.  

The Heritage Foundation defines amnesty more broadly, but also more accurately:

On occasion, proposals arise that would grant amnesty to aliens who have entered the country unlawfully, or who entered lawfully but whose authorization to remain has expired. The term “amnesty” is often used loosely with reference to aliens unlawfully in the United States. Sometimes it refers to converting the status of an alien from unlawful to lawful, either without conditions or on a condition such as a payment of a fee to the government. Sometimes it refers to granting lawful authority for an alien unlawfully in the U.S. to remain in the U.S., become a lawful permanent resident, or even acquire citizenship by naturalization, either without conditions or on a condition such as payment of a fee to the government or performance of particular types of work for specified periods. Amnesty comes in many forms, but in all its variations, it discourages respect for the law, treats law-breaking aliens better than law-following aliens, and encourages future unlawful immigration into the United States.

As Heritage’s definition makes clear, one of the repercussions of failing to recognize amnesty for what it is, is more future unlawful immigration.

The left often pays lip service to curtailing future illegal immigration but simultaneously champions granting amnesty — whether in the form of citizenship or legal status with a so-called path to citizenship — to illegal immigrants.

For example, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) 9% states on his website:

Illegal immigration is wrong, and a primary goal of immigration reform must be to dramatically curtail future illegal immigration.

We must create a legal immigration system that ends the current flow of low-skilled illegal immigrants into the United States and creates a more manageable and controlled flow of legal immigrants who can be absorbed by our economy at times when workers are needed.

We heard similar promises in 1986, when roughly 3.2 million illegal immigrants were granted amnesty.  The American people were promised it would be a one time amnesty and the borders would be secured.  Those promises turned out to be false.

Today, conservatives are asking politicians to learn from past mistakes, and not pass an amnesty bill of any kind.  As the Heritage Foundation’s Derrick Morgan notes, amnesty truly comes in many forms:

An amnesty that grants legal status to only some unlawful immigrants is still an amnesty, just a smaller one. An amnesty of any size is unfair, costly, and won’t work.

Morgan also notes that a mere 3 percent of Americans think immigration reform should be a top priority in 2014.

The House should not pass legislation that would allow them to go to conference with the Senate, where any bill produced would likely contain amnesty.

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