The A-Word: Why Amnesty Is a Dirty Word in the Immigration Debate

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Two days before his bid for immigration reform died in the Senate, President George W. Bush accidentally told a group of lawmakers that his plan would grant undocumented individuals "amnesty."

"You know, I've heard all the rhetoric - you've heard it, too - about how this is amnesty. Amnesty means that you've got to pay a price for having been here illegally, and this bill does that," Bush said at the time.

The statement signaled a shift in position from deny, deny, deny to embracing the a-word. It was such a dramatic shift, in fact, that the White House later released a retraction, saying the president had misspoken.

Throughout the 2007 debate, those defending the immigration reform distanced themselves from the a-word while opponents used it to attack. Now as President Obama and senators on both sides of the aisle renew the discussion, amnesty is again feeling the hot glare of the spotlight.

"It's essentially the same legislation that was offered and rejected in 2007," Ira Mehlman, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said about a framework proposed by four Democratic and four Republican senators Monday. "It includes amnesty for people who are here illegally."

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That word was a sticking point for Mehlman, who maintained the legislation would grant "nothing" to American citizens.

"It's all based on what the immigrants and particularly the illegal immigrants want and what employers want," Mehlman said.

Mehlman may consider it amnesty, but the lawmakers proposing the reforms call "a path to citizenship" for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. now. That path includes a fine, payment of back taxes, learning English and civics, a criminal background check and proof of employment.

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That's not amnesty, according to Human Rights Watch immigration expert Antonio Ginatta.

"It really has become poisoned," Ginatta said of the a-word. "People, I guess, have taken it to mean that it's a free pass into legal immigration status, and that's why there's this opposition to the word or the idea behind amnesty, but if you look at the proposals there is no quick path or path without penalty."

"If you think of amnesty as a pardon, that there's no penalty paid for the benefit, and the benefit here being legal status, then it's just incorrect, because there is a penalty paid," Ginatta said.

The senators' proposed path also means going to the back of the green-card line - possibly to wait for two decades, according to immigration lawyer Cori Alonso-Yoder.

Unless the government increases the number of green cards awarded each year, "people under this new reform wouldn't see a green card until longer than 24 years," Alonso-Yoder said.

This wait time is due to a backlog of immigrants who successfully completed the process but have been denied visas because of quotas as far back as 1989, according to Alonso-Yoder and Ginatta.

"We argue very strongly that any proposal toward citizenship has to be wrapped into reducing this backlog of visas, because the promise of citizenship can't be an illusion," Ginatta said. "It can't be one where citizenship is available but only after 30 or 35 years."

House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan eschewed both "amnesty" and "path" while discussing the issue on " Meet the Press" Monday, saying instead he supports Sen. Marco Rubio's principles for "earned legalization."

Jim Carafano, of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said he believes a debate over whether the bill does or doesn't grant amnesty misses the point.

"It's not really what the argument is about," Carafano told ABC News Tuesday. "What we call it is not really the relevant point."

Instead Carafano emphasized the question of fairness to immigrants who came to the country legally, creating an incentive to buck the legal process to come to the United States and how to find "an equitable, fair…way of dealing with people living in the shadows."

"All these things are crying out for solutions, but somehow we've convinced ourselves we can only do that if we tie them all together in some kind of Gordian knot," Carafano said. "When it's all down to a bumper sticker you know Washington's really lost it."