Amnesty: The Scariest Word in Immigration Politics

The politics of an immigration buzzword.

May 3, 2013— -- .Amnesty: an act of forgiveness for past offenses, especially to a class of persons as a whole.

The last large-scale legalization of undocumented immigrants, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), is often called "the 1986 amnesty." The law created a relatively straightforward pathway to citizenship, and 2.7 million undocumented immigrants eventually got green cards through the program.

But amnesty in the context of immigration is more than a way to describe legalization. It's become a dirty word in the debate -- immigration's equivalent of Obamacare.

That's no accident. Since 1986, restrictionist groups have hammered home the message that the last legalization program didn't stop illegal immigration, and that the "amnesty" failed. That's carried over to the conversation around the current immigration reform bill, which would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

However, the pathway to citizenship in this bill is nothing like the one in 1986. Undocumented immigrants need to wait 10 years before they can apply to become legal permanent residents, essentially keeping them on probation until then. Those applying for legalization would have to pay back taxes, pass a background check and pay $2,000 in fines, among other requirements.

Compared to the 1986 legalization program, this is a much more arduous process. But don't tell that to the people who want to see the current bill die.

Like the guy who helped drafted Arizona's "show me your papers" law, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. He described legalization programs as "amnesty" on 22 different occasions in his six-page written testimony to a Senate committee about the issue.

Or the Center for Immigration Studies, a restrictionist group that released a report on Friday meant to prove that the current bill is technically an amnesty (oddly enough, it never mentions the 1986 law).

How toxic is the term? Immigration reform proponent Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida, not only says that his bill isn't amnesty, he's said that without changing the laws, we're allowing a "de facto amnesty," since undocumented immigrants are allowed to live below the radar. See what he did there?

Negative branding is nothing new in politics. People actually get paid to think up these things.

Buzzwords have their limits, however, as we saw with Obamacare. After months of Tea Party faithful ranting against it, the Obama administration simply decided to adopt the name themselves.

Whether Obamacare still has a negative connotation is debatable. But one thing isn't: it's a law.