A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Gingrich Distorts Immigration Bill

He claims it would grant residency to gang members and potential terrorists, contrary to what the bill actually says.


Summary

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made false claims about the Senate immigration bill in a TV ad for a conservative group. He said it “will put…potential terrorists and gang members on a path to U.S. citizenship,” which is contrary to the language of the legislation.

Actually, the bill grants authority to deport any alien who “at any time has participated in a criminal gang.” And as for terrorists, the measure also gives the government authority to deny temporary visa status to an illegal alien if “there are reasonable grounds for regarding the alien as a danger to the security of the United States.”

Gingrich further claimed that the bill “does not even allow convicted criminals to be deported,” which is false. The bill provides for deportation proceedings for those convicted of “aggravated felonies,” which can include violent crimes such as rape or murder or even nonviolent crimes such as fraud or theft. The bill would even allow the government to toss out an illegal alien who had been convicted of three misdemeanors, such as running a red light or disturbing the peace.

Gingrich and other opponents of the immigration legislation also describe the bill as granting “amnesty.” We find that label to be misleading and a classic case of mislabeling. Several dictionaries define “amnesty” as a pardon of past offenses, or clemency. But while the legislation would allow millions of persons who are in the country illegally to remain, it does not overlook violation of U.S. law. It would require illegal immigrants to pay a $1,000 penalty for having entered the country illegally, plus $2,000 in fees, and meet several other requirements before they could qualify for a temporary visa.

We neither oppose the legislation nor endorse it. We do advise our readers against making up their minds based on an inaccurate label.

Analysis

The Gingrich ad, released June 19, was produced by Citizens United, a conservative group headed by former Republican House staff member David Bossie. The group said the ad would run on cable TV nationally.

In the ad, Gingrich claims that “the new McCain-Kennedy immigration plan will put millions of people who are in our country illegally, including potential terrorists and gang members, on a path to U.S. citizenship” and that the bill “does not even allow convicted criminals to be deported.”

Citizens United Ad

Newt Gingrich: Mohammad Atta and several other 9/11 hijackers were in the United States illegally.
Today, more than five years since that tragic day, our borders remain open to gangs, drug dealers and terrorists. Instead of protecting the borders, the new McCain-Kennedy immigration plan will put millions of people who are in our country illegally, including potential terrorists and gang members, on a path to U.S. citizenship. This bill does not even allow convicted criminals to be deported. That’s wrong. The United States is a nation of immigrants. But our great nation was built upon a foundation of law and order. The rule of law should be nonnegotiable. Amnesty makes our laws meaningless and invites millions more to cross the border illegally – making the problem worse. Not better. The new McCain-Kennedy immigration plan does not secure our borders, and it does not protect our values. Don’t let the Washington politicians compromise our security. Tell them to stop the new McCain-Kennedy immigration plan and secure the border now.

Gang Members and Terrorists?

Actually, the bill in its present form, S. 1639, contains a section specifically granting authority to deport any alien who “at any time has participated in a criminal gang” (page 122).

As for “potential” terrorists, we’re not sure whom Gingrich is talking about. However, the Senate legislation would give the Secretary of Homeland Security sweeping authority to deny a temporary visa to an illegal alien in the U.S. if “there are reasonable grounds for regarding the alien as a danger to the security of the United States” (page 563).

Gingrich also states that “this bill does not even allow convicted criminals to be deported.” In fact, it does. The bill provides for deportation of any alien convicted of an “aggravated felony” (page 605). That legal term has expanded over the years to include not only murder, rape, sexual abuse of a minor, and drug and firearms trafficking, but also nonviolent felonies including passport alteration, fraud of $10,000 or more, the receipt of stolen property and theft.

Gingrich begins the ad by invoking fear of another September 11-like attack, saying “Mohammad Atta and several other 9/11 hijackers were in the United States illegally.”  As we previously reported, the 9/11 hijackers came into the U.S. through normal channels. The 9-11 Commission Report states that a number of them had incomplete visa applications or had presented fraudulent documentation that went unnoticed at the time or that they had remained in the U.S. after their visas had expired. In any case, those who entered fraudulently or who overstayed their visas would have been deportable both under current immigration and naturalization law as well as the pending immigration bill.

Mislabeling ‘Amnesty’

Gingrich and other opponents of the Senate immigration bill describe it as “amnesty” for aliens who are in the U.S. illegally. For example, another conservative organization, Grassfire.org, aired two television ads in opposition to the bill claiming that it grants “amnesty” to illegal immigrants.

The first of Grassfire.org’s ads, released on June 4, claims that “Congress and the president want to give amnesty to millions of illegal aliens instead of securing the border.” The second ad, released June 19, shows a number of senators and President Bush wearing an “I [love] Amnesty” pin. The organization says it has spent more than $200,000 to air both ads.

This twists the meaning of the word. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “amnesty” as “a general pardon granted by a government, especially for political offenses,” and several other dictionaries give similar definitions. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “amnesty” as “a general overlooking or pardon of past offences, by the ruling authority.” But the Senate bill doesn’t grant a general pardon. Instead, it would allow aliens who are in the country illegally to remain in the country on a probationary visa, called a “Z visa,” after paying a fine and fees amounting to thousands of dollars.

Grassfire.org Ad: “Where’s the Fence?”

Woman 1: It certainly is a big border.
Woman 2: A very big border.
Announcer: Last year, Congress authorized 700 miles of fence along the Southern border.
Woman 3: Where’s the fence?
Announcer: But so far, just a few miles have been built. Now Congress and the president want to give amnesty to millions of illegal aliens instead of securing the border. Call the president and Congress today, and give them a message.
Woman 3: Where’s the fence?!

Each alien would have to pay a $1,000 “penalty” and $2,000 in fees for the temporary Z visa, pass a background check, and submit proof of employment and fingerprints. The American Immigration Lawyers Association calculates that for a family of four the total in fees and penalties for Z visas could reach $9,000, including fees for “derivative” applicants such as spouses and children. And after an initial four-year period, the bill requires additional processing fees for renewal, which the AILA figures could amount to $6,000 more.

Nevertheless, opponents insist on labeling the measure as “amnesty.” Grassfire.org spokesman Ron De Jong told FactCheck.org that the group defined amnesty as “anything that would reward someone here that was here illegally.” He argued that the opportunity to stay in the United States, even for a probationary period, can be construed as being of greater value than the fine imposed on illegal immigrants and thus a reward. That may be so, but calling the fines and fees “amnesty” doesn’t fit the dictionary definition of the term.

Doing Our Thinking for Us

Opponents are misusing the word “amnesty” to do listeners’ thinking for them results of a poll, showing a stark difference in voter opinion when the word “amnesty” was used, compared with when it was not. This was especially true for respondents identifying themselves as Republicans.

Pew: The way in which the issue is characterized has a significant effect on Republican views. While 62% of Republicans favor ‘providing a way for illegal immigrants currently in the country to gain legal citizenship,’ support declines sharply when the concept of amnesty is raised. However, even when the policy is described as ‘providing amnesty’ for illegal immigrants, about as many Republicans favor (47%) as oppose (48%) the idea.

Overall, 64 percent of those polled supported “a way to gain legal citizenship” for illegal immigrants when they are required to go through background checks, pay fines and prove they are employed, as the Senate bill would require. But support dropped to 54 percent when the word “amnesty” was used instead of the more detailed description.

There are honest arguments to be made against the bill, which would open a long and costly road to citizenship for an estimated 12 million foreigners now in the U.S. illegally. But mislabeling the proposal as “amnesty,” or making false claims that it would not allow criminals to be deported, is not among them.

by Brooks Jackson, Emi Kolawole & Lori Robertson

Media

Watch Citizens United Ad: “No to McCain-Kennedy, Yes to Border Security”

Watch Grassfire Ad: “Where’s the Fence?”

Sources

S. 1639, 110th U.S. Congress.

Sandler, Michael. “Critics Take Aim at Heart of Immigration Bill.” Congressional Quarterly Today. 18 June 2007.

Socheat Chea, “The Evolving Definition of an Aggravated Felony,” FindLaw.com, accessed 26 June 2007.

American Immigration Lawyers Association, “Summary of Key Legalization Provisions in S. 1639,” AILA InfoNet Doc. No. 07062166, 21 June 2007.