Conflict & Justice

'Amnesty': Sensitive Word in the Immigration Debate

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Mary Horrigan (L) carries a sign against amnesty for illegal immigrants at a rally in support of immigrants in Boston, Mass., May 1 2006. (Photo: REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word amnesty as an act "by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals." Many immigrant rights activists argue: that's not the right word for what's being talked about today, with regards to the question of what to do with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US.

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"Hmmm, amnesty, we don't say amnesty cause it's not amnesty," said Juanita Valdez-Cox, the executive director of the immigrant-rights organization LUPE in the Rio Grande Valley, a heavily Hispanic area in the southeast corner of Texas along the Mexican border. Valdez-Cox has been working with low income Mexican immigrants for three decades.

When President Reagan granted the last amnesty in 1986, 3 million undocumented immigrants were given legal status just by registering with the government.

"What is being talked about (today), is totally not amnesty," she said. "When people have to pay so much money — because there's going to be huge fees for having broken the law and coming in illegally — when you have to go to class, when you have to learn the language, that is fine, but the thing is don't call it amnesty. It is not amnesty. It's earned, you have to work for it, you have to pay for it. It's an earned legalization program."

Just down the road in Alamo, Texas, Michael Seifert, the coordinator of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, said the term amnesty is more commonly used for criminals and former dictators.

"And then we use that same word to talk about, oh we're giving amnesty to the 11 million people who were brave enough, who were responsible enough, who were bright enough to come to this country and make a living, and create a living, and create neighborhoods."

I asked Seifert what term he would prefer.

"I would say legalize them, yea. Regularize their status," he said.

"'Regularization, normalization,' I mean it's almost like you're stretching not to say the obvious word that everybody uses," said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that favors tighter controls on immigration.

Krikorian said those other other terms are fine to use as well. But, he said, "Amnesty was the word that was used for legalizing illegal immigrants for a long time and still is. It's simply a standard word for the process of letting those who are out of legal immigration status get right with the law."

Krikorian said surveys have found that the term amnesty has a negative connotation. It can sound like undocumented immigrants are getting something for nothing. And so, Krikorian said, those of in favor of an amnesty avoid using the word.

"People really, really didn't like the word amnesty, and needed some euphemism in order to be fooled into to supporting it."

A few weeks ago, President Obama delivered a 25-minute speech about comprehensive immigration reform. He never used the term amnesty or legalization.

Here's how he spoke about the 11 million people living in the US illegally: "For comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship."

But just because the president isn't saying it, that doesn't mean the word amnesty won't be used a lot in the coming months.

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    As Congress moves forward on an immigration reform package, deciding what to do with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US will be a major sticking point. (Photo: Jason Margolis)