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'Amnesty' begins, ends debate

Published May 19, 2007


NEW YORK - The word "amnesty" - at the core of the debate over a proposed immigration overhaul - has been a volatile, politically charged term throughout its history, often applying to acts hailed by supporters as magnanimous and assailed by critics as weak-kneed.

Critics of the immigration deal in Congress have used "amnesty" in a pejorative way to describe plans to grant legal status to millions of illegal immigrants. They could obtain a renewable visa allowing them to stay in the country indefinitely and, after paying fees and fines, get on track for permanent residency.

"Any plan that rewards illegal behavior is amnesty, " said Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif.

It's debatable, however, whether the plan meets the technical definition of amnesty, which traditionally involves a no-strings-attached offer to restore the status of innocence to a certain class of people accused of crimes against the state.

"An amnesty differs from a general pardon in that the latter simply relieves from punishment whereas the former declares innocence or abolishes the crime, " says the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The current friction over amnesty has dismayed supporters of the proposed immigration compromise, such as the National Council of La Raza, a major Hispanic civil rights group. They see it as an attempt to put them on the defensive and control the debate.

"The folks on the anti-immigration side have made it a poisoned term, " said Cecelia Munoz, La Raza's senior vice president for public policy.

President Andrew Johnson's 1868 declaration directed at Confederate war veterans is perhaps the most prominent amnesty in U.S. history. President Jimmy Carter's pardon of Vietnam War draft evaders in 1977 is sometimes described as an amnesty, but it did not declare innocence.

This isn't the first time amnesty has been a focal point in wrangling over immigration. A 1986 law signed by Ronald Reagan established a one-year amnesty program for illegal immigrants who had been in the United States at least four years. An estimated 2.7-million people took advantage of the provision.

"It's a vastly different political environment now than in 1986, " said Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform and a leading critic of proposals to accommodate illegal immigrants. "They're getting more than an amnesty, they're getting a reward. It violates every fundamental notion of fairness."

Coming up

The Senate

The Senate plans to open debate Monday on the bill and consider amendments. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has set a Memorial Day deadline for completing the measure, but it's unlikely it can be finished that quickly.

The House

Democratic leaders are waiting for the Senate to pass a bill before they consider one in the more-polarized House. They plan to act in July, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has told President Bush she won't bring up a bill unless he can promise at least 70 Republicans will support it.

The White House

If the House passes a version, the House and Senate would have to blend the two bills, pass that, then send it to Bush, who has said he's eager to sign the measure by August.

[Last modified May 19, 2007, 01:54:38]

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