By Mark Krikorian on April 6, 2006

National Review Online, April 6, 2006

There was a series of TV commercials years ago for a brand of jelly that claimed to be so pristine that one should ask for it as "fruit." In each ad, a boorish guest at breakfast would set the biddies swooning by asking for the "jelly."

What sets the biddies swooning in Washington these days is the word "amnesty." Arlen Specter, for instance, last week had a conniption, saying "This word 'amnesty' is a code word, it is a code word to try to smear good-faith legislation." George Will rapped the knuckles of "faux conservatives" who were so impertinent as to use the forbidden word. And the Gray Lady herself, the New York Times, editorialized that "It Isn't Amnesty," wagging her finger at those who would employ "the most mealy mouthed word in the immigration glossary."

Even the elite media have taken sides, mimicking their approach to "the procedure which opponents call " 'partial birth' abortion"; the Washington Post reported Tuesday on a Senate compromise proposal that "could satisfy some conservatives opposed to any program that offers illegal immigrants a way to stay in the country and work toward citizenship, which they term 'amnesty.' "

The parallel to the abortion debate is telling; both "amnesty" and "abortion" (not to mention "acid"!) are things people dislike, so their promoters have to invent new terminology. The National Abortion Rights Action League, for instance, is no more - now it's "NARAL Pro-Choice America," fighting for "reproductive rights" and "women's health."

Like in the abortion debate, amnesty was called by its name in earlier, more naive phases of the debate. The legalization portions of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act were almost universally referred to as amnesty, by both supporters and opponents. But when it became clear what a debacle that amnesty was (it legalized nearly three million illegal aliens, sparking massive illegal immigration and distorting the development of agriculture and other industries), it became necessary to find a different word for the next amnesty.

In 2001, the National Council of La Raza, conducted focus groups to see what the (American) public thought of the word "amnesty." Raul Yzaguirre, president of the group at the time, told the Dallas Morning News that as a result of the focus groups he advised Mexican President Vicente Fox never to use the word, instead referring to "regularization" or "legalization." Other euphemisms that have been developed are "normalization," "permanence," "earned adjustment," and "phased-in access to earned regularization."

In fact, amnesty supporters can't even get their stories straight about why it's wrong to say "amnesty." One story line is that the word is invalid because there's no offense that has to be forgiven. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D., Ill.), for instance, said "Amnesty - there's an implication that somehow you did something wrong and you need to be forgiven." Mexico's former foreign minister also rejected the term because "We don't view these people as lawbreakers, but rather as hard-working people who pay taxes, who are law-abiding, and whose existence needs to be adjusted, their status regularized."

Other amnesty supporters peddle the opposite story line - it's not amnesty because the illegals will pay their debt to society for breaking the law. For instance, Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute, the unofficial chief spokesman for the McCain-Kennedy amnesty, recently said on TV that "I don't think if I had to go to the police station in my town and say, 'I committed a crime, I'm willing to come forward and tell you so, authorities, give you my name and my number and my address, pay a fine, be under official supervision for 11 years until I could get on to the right side of the law,' I wouldn't consider that an amnesty." Except that since the illegal alien keeps what he broke the law to get in the first place - the ability to live and work here permanently - Jacoby's analogy applied to, say, a bank robber would mean that after turning himself in he'd get to keep the money he stole.

Not all amnesties are the same, of course. The low-immigration advocacy group Numbers USA has identified six types of amnesty (see Note 2 here), including Exit Amnesty, Reward Amnesty, Instant Jackpot Amnesty, Multi-Step Jackpot Amnesty, Blanket Amnesty, and De Facto Amnesty - truly, an amnesty to suit every need. An academic treatment is found in "A Theory of Immigration Amnesties," by two Israeli professors who trace illegal-alien amnesties worldwide over the past two decades to understand how they work and how they differ.

But the variations are less important for today's policy debate than the similarities - anything that lets illegal aliens remain here is an amnesty. There may come a time when consideration of amnesty is appropriate, but certainly not until after the political establishment demonstrates a willingness to actually enforce the immigration laws.

And if that day comes, let us speak plainly about what we're considering, and shake off what Solzhenitsyn called "obedience to lies."

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.