Obama Waterboards the Definition of Amnesty in Immigration Speech


Let's not impugn each other's motives! Especially since Republicans are evil! ||| Whitehouse.gov

In his immigration speech last night, President Barack Obama said "We need reasoned, thoughtful, compassionate debate that focuses on our hopes, not our fears." If only we had a president who could meet this pressing need.

Consider this passage, on the emotionally loaded word "amnesty":

I know some of the critics of the action call it amnesty. Well, it's not. Amnesty is the immigration system we have today. Millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules, while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time. That's the real amnesty, leaving this broken system the way it is.

Supple as it may be, the English language does not permit us to address the discomfort of certain words by changing their plain meaning. Most definitions of "amnesty" run something like this: "the act of releasing or protecting a person or persons from prosecution for wrongdoings." Obama's proposal last night was to release a large category of persons from punishment for breaking U.S. law, if they agree to meet certain conditions. So by a fair reading of the word's dictionary definition, this is a conditional amnesty, or even a temporary conditional amnesty, given that President Ted Cruz will likely reverse it. But an amnesty nonetheless.

What is definitely not amnesty is what Obama said it was: the status quo, in which the class of people under discussion live under a permanent, destabilizing threat of deportation. Yes, some of them don't pay their income taxes, but, believe it or not, many (and possibly most) do. Many also pay into Social Security without much hope of ever receiving anything back, providing a little bonus surplus to our sagging welfare state. And of course, where applicable, illegal immigrants pay sales and property taxes as well.

The most significant way that illegal immigrants aren't "playing by the rules," is the fact that they live here without government permission. Is that de facto amnesty? No: They have not benefited from a "releasing or protecting" from punishment; they're just on a lucky streak, but still liable to be ejected from the country at any time. At least until Obama's temporary conditional amnesty kicks in.

My fellow supporters of vastly increased legal immigration to this country do not, I believe, further their cause by retreating into soft-focus euphemism (DREAMers!) or sidestepping uncomfortable language just because it has proven politicially effective for people on the other side of the issue.

If you recognized the existence of more than 10 million unpermitted residents in this country as the product more of prohibition than of criminality, and acted upon that insight foremostly by expanding and deregulating legal immigration, then I predict the word "amnesty" would start to lose some of its negative potency. People really resent line-jumpers when the queue stretches back as far as the eye can see; speed up that process and our national debate would look a lot more reasoned and thoughtful.