Tuesday, September 13, 2005

It’s “the A-Word,” and it can damn any immigration bill to oblivion.

The word is “amnesty,” or as one immigration-control advocate calls it, “the death word.” It’s a charge that a lot of people want to make and nobody wants to hear.

As the immigration debate warms up over the next few months, President Bush and congressional lawmakers will try to prevent their legislation from being tagged with the “amnesty” label.

“For some, you would think amnesty is in the eye of the beholder because there are some critics who have nothing constructive to offer who criticize every proposal as amnesty or amnesty light,” says Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican.

He finds himself defending against those who say his plan, which would enable illegal aliens to come forward and remain in the country for up to five years in a work program before they are required to return home, is an amnesty.

Craig Nelson, founder of Project USA, an immigration control advocacy group, has placed billboards in some congressional districts announcing that the local officeholder “supports amnesty.” He takes some credit for giving a sting to the word.

“I very, very consciously set out to do that,” he says. “Everything we put out was always using that word in an accusatory way.”

The president says his own guest-worker proposal doesn’t qualify.

“Now I’ve heard all kinds of talk about amnesty,” Mr. Bush said last month. “I’m against amnesty. I think amnesty would be a mistake.”

The president demonstrated the power of the word during last year’s campaign when he leveled the charge against his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts: “Here is where my opponent and I differ. In September 2003, he supported amnesty for illegal aliens.”

Some Republicans, however, say the president’s guest-worker plan is an amnesty that he doesn’t want to call an amnesty.

“I’ve seen no guest-worker program that didn’t include amnesty — amnesty defined by Webster’s,” says Rep. Steve King. He debated the issue with White House political adviser Karl Rove in early January 2004, just before Mr. Bush announced his plan.

“Karl Rove argued it wasn’t amnesty if you simply fined them $1,000, or $1,500,” he says. “That way there’d be a punishment.”

That makes no difference to the Iowa Republican. “The penalty for illegal entry into the United States is, in part, deportation. In all cases, if the law’s applied, they have to return to their home country. Anything short of that is amnesty.”

Mr. Cornyn says his immigration reform bill is not amnesty because amnesty would be “forgiving illegal conduct and putting people on a pathway to legal permanent residency or citizenship.”

Another major proposal — from Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat — does put illegal aliens on a path to citizenship.

Mr. Kennedy calls it not amnesty, but “earned legalization,” because the aliens would pay a fine and have to pass a security check.

Tamar Jacoby, a research fellow at Manhattan Institute, says the only workable solution has to include legalization. She says the McCain-Kennedy bill is more akin to “probation” than amnesty.

“The point is what it is. Not what kind of euphemistic term is used,” she says. “Sure, we can all play with the terms — both sides play with the terms. But the point of the American people is, is it unfairly rewarding people or is it a transition that is in our national interest?”

Mr. Nelson of Project USA has challenged Mr. McCain to submit his bill to an arbitration panel. “If they said yeah, this bill is not an amnesty, it really is a step-by-step path to whatever euphemism, then we would apologize publicly to Senator McCain and put up billboards saying, ‘Senator McCain does not support amnesty for illegal aliens,’” he says.

If the panel says it’s amnesty, “then he would put up 10 billboards around Phoenix saying, ‘I, John McCain, support amnesty for illegal aliens.’ ” So far, he says, he has not heard from Mr. McCain.

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