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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Is Senate Immigration Plan ‘Amnesty’?

Opponents of a bipartisan Senate immigration plan say it includes “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, but that label is not strictly accurate. Although the Senate plan includes a “path to citizenship,” it also requires illegal immigrants to pay a fine, pay back taxes, learn English and then get in line for permanent legal status behind other immigrants already in the system.

The Senate’s so-called “Gang of Eight” announced the framework for an immigration policy overhaul on Jan. 28. Perhaps the most controversial part of the plan is that it includes a “path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants already here,” that is “contingent upon securing the border and combating visa overstays.”

Several Republican opponents quickly seized on the plan as “amnesty.”

Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, Jan. 28: By granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration.

Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas, Jan. 28: I will not be supporting the Senate’s proposed “immigration reform” should it reach the House. I cannot and will not support any immigration reform proposal that institutes an amnesty program or does not begin with a comprehensive plan to secure the borders.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, Jan. 28: Extending amnesty to those who came here illegally or overstayed their visas is dangerous waters. We are a nation of laws, and I will evaluate any proposal through that matrix.

Groups such as Numbers USA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) — both of which seek to limit the number of people coming to the U.S. to live, legally or illegally — also quickly labelled the Senate group’s framework as “amnesty.”

Use of the term “amnesty” predictably arises in nearly every immigration policy debate, but as we have noted when it has been used in the past, it is an emotion-laden term that misleads many to believe that plans call for immediate, permanent legal status for illegal immigrants, when in fact they do not. Neither does the latest Senate “Gang of Eight” plan.

According to the framework of the plan released by the bipartisan group, illegal immigrants will be required to register with the government. “This will include passing a background check and settling their debt to society by paying a fine and back taxes, in order to earn probationary legal status, which will allow them to live and work legally in the United States,” the plan states. Those on probationary status will not be able to access federal public benefits.

And those on probationary status “will be required to go to the back of the line of prospective immigrants, pass an additional background check, pay taxes, learn English and civics, demonstrate a history of work in the United States, and current employment, among other requirements, in order to earn the opportunity to apply for lawful permanent residency. Those individuals who successfully complete these requirements can eventually earn a green card.”

Special rules would apply to those who entered the U.S. as children, as well as for those working in the agricultural industry.

Does that amount to amnesty? We posed the question to Susan F. Martin, a professor of international migration at Georgetown University and director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration.

“As with many such issues, this one can be answered on a yes/no basis,” Martin wrote to us in an email.

“If one defines amnesty as dictionary.com does as ‘an act of forgiveness for past offenses, especially to a class of persons as a whole,’ the plan partly meets the definition (some aspects are not forgiven, such as the requirement to pay back taxes),” Martin said. “If one defines it as a dictionary of law published by Oxford University Press does as ‘An act erasing from legal memory some aspect of criminal conduct by an offender. It is most frequently granted to groups of people in respect of political offences and is wider than a pardon, which merely relieves an offender of punishment,’ it does not.”

For one, she said, “unauthorized migration is not a criminal offense.” Rather, it is a civil offense. Some offenses related to illegal entry are criminal, she explained, such as re-entry after a formal removal process or use of counterfeit documents, “but most of those who are in the country without legal status are not subject to criminal procedures.”

Second, she said, “the legalization/regularization programs being proposed do not erase anything from legal memory–in fact, they involve some level of continuing amends by the recipients (payment of back taxes, learning English, etc.).”

And third, she said, “legal status initially allows only work authorization; beneficiaries go to the back of the line to obtain legal permanent residence that would put them on a citizenship track.”

We should note that President Obama outlined similar requirements for illegal immigrants in his speech on immigration policy the day after the bipartisan Senate group announced its framework.

Obama, Jan. 29: We’ve got to lay out a path — a process that includes passing a background check, paying taxes, paying a penalty, learning English, and then going to the back of the line, behind all the folks who are trying to come here legally. That’s only fair, right?

We have no doubt that the term amnesty will continue to be used liberally throughout the coming immigration debate. We note that, as always, we take no position on any legislation, but the term — as applied to the Senate plan — is inaccurate.

— Robert Farley