Immigration reform finds itself in the spotlight once again, meaning opponents will again distort the word “amnesty.”
After many stumbles and outright failures, immigration reform has gained momentum once again. President Obama addressed the issue earlier this month in El Paso, Texas, where he described reform as “an economic imperative.” And now the commander-in-chief has been putting pressure on Congressional Democrats to rally for reform.
Some seem prepared to do so: allies in both the Senate and the House have reintroduced the DREAM Act. If passed, a long shot, the act would give permanent residency to immigrant students who enlist in the armed services or attend college.
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois insists the proposed law would allow illegal immigrants brought over by their parents to “contribute to our nation’s future.”
“These are honor roll students, star athletes, talented artists and valedictorians. These children are tomorrow’s doctors, nurses, teachers, firefighters, soldiers and senators, and we should give them the opportunity to reach their full potential,” he said.
Conservative aren’t so keen, of course, and are again using a word that’s become a dog whistle of sorts—amnesty.
Lamar Smith, the Republican representative who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, remarked: “[The act is] amnesty for up to 2 million people… I just don’t see it when you are still talking about amnesty.”
Influential conservative group The Heritage Foundation also used the A-word to lambast the president’s policies, “Rather than offer effective solutions to the illegal immigration problem, Obama’s response was to ridicule those seeking to enforce the law and offer amnesty for others to curry their political favor. He even dredged up the DREAM Act, a mini-amnesty in sheep’s clothing… ”
The Obama administration has also employed the term. “The President doesn’t support amnesty, the [Secretary of Homeland Security] doesn’t support amnesty, I don’t support amnesty,” said John Morton, Assistant Secretary for Immigration and Customs enforcement last August.
Traced back to its 16th century origins, the term amnesty, a relative of amnesia, means “pardon of past offenses” and “intentional overlooking.” Contemporary usage follows a similar train of thought, although one that’s more explicitly political. Merriam-Webster offers this definition: “the act of an authority (as a government) by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.”
Using “amnesty” in relation to immigration reform and the DREAM Act falls within the proper linguistic boundaries: the offense of living in the States illegally has been eradicated, obliterated from the record and forgotten. But political usage also projects an aura of sinister criminality on illegal immigrants, and we know that criminality is but an ideologically expedient illusion.
As Obama pointed out in his El Paso speech, our nation founded itself on “E pluribus unum,” “Out of many, one.” “We define ourselves as a nation of immigrants – a nation that welcomes those willing to embrace America’s precepts,” the president declared.
He’s not infallible in all of this — the President of the United States could have been more potent in pushing reform — but his rhetoric is on the right track: “It doesn’t matter where you come from; what matters is that you believe in the ideals on which we were founded; that you believe all of us are equal and deserve the freedom to pursue happiness. In embracing America, you can become American. And that enriches all of us.”
Painting immigration reform as “amnesty” perverts the discussion, perpetuating an “Us” (law-abiding, U.S.-born citizens) against “Them” (criminal illegals from someplace foreign and threatening) mentality. Rather than subscribing to such petty and insidious symbolism, politicians of all stripes should champion another word that starts with a: “Acceptance.”