One of the most common talking points immigration reform opponents have used over the years has been that legalizing undocumented immigrants is a form of amnesty that rewards and encourages illegal behavior. For the most part, politicians have gotten away with equating the term “amnesty” with an earned path to legalization. Today, at a House Immigration Subcommittee Hearing, Mathew Staver of the Liberty Counsel informed Rep. Steve King (R-IA) that the definition of “amnesty” that he and many of his colleagues use is not “consistent with the rule of law”:
KING: I would define amnesty this way [...] — to grant amnesty is to pardon immigration lawbreakers and reward them with the objective of their crime. And I just submit that definition to you and ask as a lawyer, an attorney, as a pastor, and as someone who has studied this thoroughly, how you would react to that definition. [...]
STAVER: Congressman King, that definition would not be consistent with the rule of law. It would not be consistent with the definition that is Blackstone or Black’s Law dictionary. Amnesty would be forgiveness — complete forgiveness — where you have absolutely no penalty. That’s what Ronald Reagan did, I don’t support what Ronald Reagan did. I don’t suppose that that is what I’m proposing here. [...]
KING: Then I would submit then Reverand that the path that you’ve described here is pay a fine, pay back taxes, learn English. Those things are designed to provide the objective of the person who has already broken the law. [...] I don’t see that as a penalty or any kind of recompense for breaking the law. [...]
Staver isn’t exactly an open-borders liberal activist either. In fact, he and King probably agree on more issues than they disagree. However, Staver does make a valid point. For too long, politicians like King who adamantly oppose comprehensive immigration reform have mischaracterized its legalization component. And in the case of immigration, semantics matter a lot. The public has typically been opposed to any solutions that sound like or are described as amnesty. However, when a path to legalization is accurately described as a process involving penalties and requirements, Americans are far more accepting. America’s Voice argues that a path to legalization is polled as being “the most convincing reason to support comprehensive immigration reform” when it’s understood as requiring immigrants “to get legal and pay their fair share of taxes.” In fact, a recent ABC News poll found that 61 percent of Americans support giving undocumented immigrants “the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements.” Even 59 percent of Republicans support such a solution.
Immigration hawks are only partly to blame for the misunderstanding. Reporters and respected media outlets have largely failed to make a distinction between “amnesty” and an earned path to legalization. Though the ABC News polling question excluded the term “amnesty,” when the news was reported, the network used the two phrases synonymously. Politicians who want to avoid taking a firm position on the issue also exploit the ambiguity. When probed on her comprehensive immigration reform position, California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman (R-CA) has consistently stated that she opposes “amnesty.” Her response is a crowd-pleaser, but amnesty isn’t even on the legislative table. Whitman is smart enough to know that what is on the table is an earned path to legalization — something Whitman supported in the distant past but hasn’t brought up since her race heated up.
Staver pointed out to King that “we only have three options”: “deport every body, give them all complete forgiveness with no consequence, or deal with them somehow.” Most Americans understand that the first option is “impractical and impossible,” the second is unfair, and that the only tangible solution is to find a tough but viable way to deal with the millions of undocumented immigrants currently in the country.