Amnesty, in English: The debate over amnesty ought to be waged in plain English.

By Mark Krikorian on September 4, 2001

National Review, September 4, 2001

Alfred Kahn, an economic adviser to President Carter, was instructed by the White House to avoid using the word "recession" for fear of its political implications. So instead, he impishly used "banana," as in "Between 1973 and 1975 we had the deepest banana that we had in 35 years."

The current administration is trying the same thing with its proposed illegal-alien amnesty, which presidents Bush and Fox will discuss this week during the latter's state visit. But this time the objective is to sweeten an obviously unpalatable policy.

If "amnesty" means anything in the context of immigration, it means granting permanent residence to illegal aliens, as we did for 2.7 million illegals in 1986 (a move billed as the first and last amnesty in American history). But last month, when the White House floated its plan to grant legal status to some or all of the 3 to 4 million Mexican illegal aliens in this country, it met a firestorm of GOP criticism. And ever since, there's been a mad rush to come up with alternative descriptions for what is plainly an amnesty.

The White House mantra is that it opposes a "blanket amnesty." In August, President Bush said, "There's going to be no amnesty," though he immediately contradicted himself by saying he favors a plan "that will legalize the hard work that's taking place now in America." Presumably, the point is that the only thing that can be called an amnesty is a grant of immediate legal status to all illegal aliens, without any standard to determine eligibility. By that reckoning, even the huge 1986 amnesty wasn't really an amnesty, since only about half the illegal aliens here at the time benefited from it, because of numerous residency and other requirements.

Amnesty supporters have been working overtime to avoid the "A" word. Unlike in Al Kahn's playful approach, the result has been euphemisms only a policy wonk could love: "regularization," "legalization," "normalization," "permanence," "earned adjustment," and (perhaps most ludicrous) "phased-in access to earned regularization." Focus groups conducted by the National Council of La Raza, a leading supporter of amnesty, found so much resistance that the organization advised Mexican president Vicente Fox never to utter the word.

Other amnesty supporters have gone farther, challenging the very concept of amnesty and seeking to legitimize illegal immigration. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D., Ill.), for instance, rejects the concept altogether: "Amnesty — there's an implication that somehow you did something wrong and you need to be forgiven." Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza makes the same point in a more sophisticated fashion; the word "conveys a sense of forgiving someone for a crime," she says, when in fact, crossing the border illegally is a civil offense, not a criminal one. A quick look at Title 8, Section 1325 of the U.S. Code shows this to be false: Illegal entry into the United States is a misdemeanor on the first offense, and a felony afterward.

Now, the current amnesty proposal would be administratively different from its predecessor. The 1986 version was a "retrospective amnesty," in which illegal aliens had to present proof that they had been living here since before 1982 in order to get a green card. Though the details have yet to be announced, the outlines of a new amnesty are clear — it would be a "prospective amnesty," under which illegals would first be rechristened as "temporary workers" and then, after a period of several years, would receive green cards as though they were ordinary legal immigrants.

Both the retrospective and prospective approaches grant legal residence, and eventually citizenship, to illegal aliens — the defining characteristics of an amnesty. In fact, that's the only reason the immigrant-rights groups supported the administration's proposal in the first place. Otherwise, the plan would be no different from Sen. Phil Gramm's guestworker proposal, which would allow illegal aliens to work legally, but only as part of a genuinely temporary program, which provided no green cards at the end. Such a program would have its own drawbacks — to begin with, there's nothing as permanent as a temporary worker — but at least it would have the virtue of semantic honesty.

Whatever one thinks of amnesty, the debate over such a sweeping measure should take place in plain English. If an amnesty does have merit, supporters should be able to make the case for it without evasion and obfuscation. Perhaps, as the discussion heats up in the wake of this week's visit by President Fox, we can get away from talk of "phased-in access to earned regularization" and grapple with these momentous issues more openly and honestly.

Topics: UnidosUS