- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2006

President Bush’s oft-stated claim that providing illegal aliens a “path to citizenship,” such as by allowing them to pay a fine or prove long-term employment, isn’t amnesty rings hollow for critics who see it as rewarding lawbreakers.

Political observers say disagreement over the very meaning of the word “amnesty” is fueling what was an already raging debate over pending immigration legislation.

The word “amnesty” carries a certain “radioactivity,” says pollster John Zogby.

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“Why? Simply because Americans favor playing by the rules,” he said. “Anything that sounds illegal, unfair, it’s tantamount to using steroids to hit home runs or to win a marathon. When the word amnesty comes up it means condoning actions of people who are not playing by the same rules.”

Most dictionaries define amnesty as a pardon granted by government to someone who has committed a political offense or broken a law.

The president has repeatedly asserted that illegal aliens should not be given amnesty, “an automatic pass.” But Mr. Bush has suggested some form of quid pro quo for productive illegals now in the United States.

“There ought to be a way for somebody to pay a fine or learn English, or you know, prove that they’ve been here for a long time working and be able to get in line, not the head of the line, but in the back of the line in order to become a citizen,” Mr. Bush said Tuesday.

Opponents disagree, saying what the president has described is equal to simply overlooking the offense of entering the U.S. illegally. The fear, according to some, is that such a move would result in a repeat of 1986 when President Reagan approved the last amnesty, which allowed 2 million illegals to become residents.

“It worked so badly that we can’t even use the word anymore,” said Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He said many more people claimed the right than expected.

As part of a quid pro quo, the 1986 law provided amnesty and carried new penalties for employers found to have hired illegals. The problem, according to Mr. Rector, is that “the second part of the thing never happened.”

“Conservatives supported it in ‘86 because they felt they were going to get a secure border in exchange for amnesty,” he said. “It’s exactly the same type of fraudulent deal that we’re being offered now.”

White House spokesman Tony Snow says the establishment of benchmarks for illegals to be given an opportunity for citizenship ensures it is not amnesty.

“In this particular case … the president is taking issue with the description of amnesty, for a pretty good reason. He said you will pay fines. You will have a criminal penalty. You will also have to pay taxes.

“You will also have to keep your … nose clean: you can’t break the law. … And when all of that is done, you get to go to the back of the line.”

The emotional nature of the disagreement among conservatives was shown clearly by a Zogby International poll last month, which found that just 13 percent of Republicans said they supported amnesty and 76 percent said they opposed it.

Mr. Zogby noted yesterday that he gets different responses to polls based on the words he uses.

“I get a different response when I use the term guest worker versus when I use the term illegal alien,” he said. “Americans are more willing to accept guest workers if that’s how they are portrayed, than to accept illegal aliens if that’s how they’re portrayed.”

While the battle over who should be allowed to settle in the United States reaches back to the nation’s beginning, this fight over “amnesty” and whether to grant it flat out, partially or at all to people who sneak into the country illegally is fairly new.

A law granting amnesty to political asylum seekers was passed in 1980, but it wasn’t until 1986 — with the number of illegals flowing in from Mexico on the rise — that the Simpson-Rodino Bill, or Immigration Reform and Control Act, granted amnesty to all undocumented residents who could prove continuous residence in the United States since 1982.

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