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In immigration debate, 'amnesty' is a loaded word

Associated Press
Published April 2, 2006

WASHINGTON - In the debate over immigration, amnesty is an epithet, hurled by one side, dodged at all costs by the other. The scarlet letter "A," one congressman calls it.

Which is why supporters of Senate legislation say they favor an "earned path to citizenship" for an estimated 11-million illegal immigrants in the United States. Why an advocacy group calls itself the "Essential Worker Immigration Coalition."

And why President Bush talks about a comprehensive approach to immigration - details undisclosed - that moves "beyond tired choices and the harsh attitudes of the past."

Critics who ascribe amnesty to the bill are "trying to find hot buttons to push," pollster Celinda Lake recently told reporters. "I'm surprised some people don't call it gay marriage, too."

More than election-year word play is at stake as Congress struggles toward the first major overhaul of immigration laws in two decades.

In the Senate, victory probably will belong to any group of 60 lawmakers supporting an approach they comfortably can claim is less than amnesty.

Bush's agreement with their definition, or at least his acquiescence, is essential. That is especially so if a compromise is to emerge from negotiations with the House.

Republicans there have passed legislation calling for criminal penalties for people illegally in the U.S. and for a fence along stretches of the U.S.-Mexican border to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States.

By contrast, legislation before the full Senate begins with steps to strengthen border protection and omits the criminal penalties. It envisions an increase in the flow of future immigrants into the U.S., in temporary guest worker programs.

Of greatest contention is letting illegal aliens who were in the United States before Jan. 7, 2004, seek citizenship without first returning to their home country.

They would be required to pay fines, show they were current on their taxes, learn English and meet other criteria, including waiting behind immigrants legally in the United States.

Critics say that would forgive years of lawbreaking and encourage future immigrants to come to the country illegally.

Many House Republicans say their party courts disaster at the polls if they embrace amnesty.

The most difficult issue probably will be the conditions under which illegal immigrants may apply for citizenship.

Some lawmakers want an applicant to return to his home country first.

If so, for how long? What happens to any family members? For example, children born in the United States are already citizens.

The stricter the terms, the assumption is that fewer individuals will step forward. The more lenient the terms, the more senators will face the amnesty charge.

"Anybody that votes for an amnesty bill deserves to be branded with a scarlet letter "A,' " said Iowa Rep. Steve King, evoking the stern, swift judgment of the Puritans.

N.Y. immigrant rally draws thousands

NEW YORK - Thousands of immigrants formed a line stretching more than a mile long Saturday as they marched across the Brooklyn Bridge, waving flags from more than a dozen countries as they demonstrated against possible immigration reform in Congress.

The crowd of mostly Latin American marchers gathered in a neighborhood settled by the Dutch, crossed a bridge designed by a German and finished in a square at the edge of Chinatown in an area that once held the Irish slums glamorized in the 2002 film Gangs of New York.

"If you hurt immigrants you are hurting America," read a sign held by one marcher. "We are your economy," said another.

[Last modified April 2, 2006, 01:25:16]

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