If you had to sum up immigration reform’s crushing defeat in 2007 in one word, there would be exactly one choice:
That single characterization of proposals to legalize the undocumented population became a rallying cry on the right, presaging the tea party revolution and overthrowing the best laid plans of George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy alike.
As Republicans take their first steps toward backing a comprehensive immigration bill with many of the same features as their 2007 effort, the wounds of the “amnesty” tag are still raw. Not coincidentally, one of the first tasks for any prominent conservative endorsing reform is to try and neutralize the word.
On Monday, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), whose entire career was threatened by an anti-immigration backlash in Arizona, used the dreaded a-word to describe the status quo.
“The reality that’s been created is a de facto amnesty,” McCain told reporters at a press conference introducing his own bipartisan plan Monday. “We have been too content for too long to allow individuals to mow our lawn, serve our food, clean our homes, and even watch our children, while not affording them any of the benefits that make our country so great.”
Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a supporter of reform, also used the “de facto amnesty” label but in a nice partisan twist, applied it to President Obama’s policies halting deportations on young undocumented immigrants.
“As a result of the White House Executive Orders last year, we now have a defacto amnesty status which can only be fixed through legislation,” Cardenas said in a statement on Monday. “We will soon know whether President Obama is more interested in finding solutions to our nation’s immigration challenges or yet another opportunity for political grand standing and ‘gotcha’ politics.”
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) condemned amnesty repeatedly in an interview with MSNBC the same day while also calling for some form of immigration reform, prompting her hosts to ask just what she meant by the term.
“You know, amnesty is allowing people who came in the country to stay in the country — not asking them to make that situation right, not asking them to pay those back taxes,” she said. “I think that what we need to do is very carefully look at what this pathway is going to be. We have to make certain that there is not going to be an amnesty that encourages more amnesty.”
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) adopted a similar definition on MSNBC Tuesday when asked whether he felt the Senate’s proposal was “amnesty,” saying he thought it was “pretty tough love” by requiring undocumented immigrants to pay fines, back taxes, and pass a background check to qualify for legal status.
This definition of amnesty as “legal status without penalties” is largely in line with talking points circulated by the conservative Hispanic Leadership Network, which include a host of neat tricks for shaking the label. Among them:
Don’t begin with “We are against amnesty” Note: Most everyone is against amnesty and this is interpreted as being against any reform.
Do acknowledge that the true meaning of amnesty is to pardon without any penalty
Don’t label earned legal status as amnesty
Don’t focus on amnesty as a tenet of immigration reform
Don’t use President Reagan’s immigration reform as an example applicable today
Note: That legislation was true amnesty; in addition, border security, fixing our visa system, and a temporary worker program were parts of the reform which were never implemented.
For every Republican on TV trying to redefine the term, however, there will be plenty looking to ride the same resentments that powered grassroots opposition to immigration reform in 2007. “It’s very difficult for me to support something that allows that type of amnesty,” Rep. Pete King (R-NY) told Newsday on Monday, explaining his opposition to the Senate plan.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.