Debate Could Turn on a 7-Letter Word

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 30, 2007

When organized opponents of the immigration bill being debated in the U.S. Senate want to rally the troops, get the e-mails churning and the congressional switchboards lighting up, they almost invariably invoke the "A-word."

In Web sites, speeches and news releases, critics of the legislation attack it as a form of "amnesty." They argue that it would reward 10 million to 12 million immigrants who entered the United States illegally and would encourage others to sneak in, too.

When organized supporters of the bill respond, they consistently deny that it offers anything remotely like amnesty, or blanket forgiveness. Instead, they use the "L-word," describing an orderly process of legalization that would take at least eight years. The process would include a series of temporary visas, payment of hefty fees and a return by the head of the family to his or her native country before applying for permanent residency.

But despite supporters' emphasis that the bill involves fines, waiting lists and background checks, and despite polls showing most Americans favor some form of legalization, the specter of amnesty has persistently haunted the debate -- and could jeopardize the bill's chances for passage.

"Anything that allows illegal immigrants to stay and become legal is amnesty," said Jessica Echard, executive director of the Eagle Forum, a national conservative group. "We're not saying they should deport everyone. We are saying let's turn off the spigot, start enforcing laws on the border and in the workplace. Then we will see the illegal population shrink on its own."

"Certainly, this is amnesty," said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for a group called NumbersUSA that strongly opposes the Senate bill. "In our view, it is rewarding lawbreakers with the objective of their crime: giving them a job. The message to would-be illegal immigrants is: Come on in, if you are looking for a job you will get it."

Opponents are able to successfully invoke amnesty in part because of the historical record: The U.S. government has offered seven amnesties to various categories of illegal immigrants in the past 20 years, benefiting 5 million people. In some cases, the amnesties were linked to political debates in the United States or conflicts in the immigrants' home countries.

Supporters of the proposed legislation say its provisions are entirely different from earlier laws. For one thing, they say, the requirements for becoming legal were much less burdensome and costly under the amnesty laws. Under the Senate bill, illegal immigrants already in the United States could apply for a temporary visa that would permit them to live and work in the country as long as they pay a series of fees and renew the visa every two years. After eight years, the head of the family could return to his or her native country and apply for permanent U.S. residency. To supporters, that's a far cry from amnesty.

"It is stunning how potent this piece of the debate has become and fascinating that such a poisonous term is being used this way, because nobody is proposing anything that even resembles an amnesty," said Cecilia Muñoz of the National Council of La Raza, a group that strongly advocates a legalization program. "We are giving people a chance to earn their legal status, not giving it away."

"Amnesty is where someone comes in illegally and gets in front of others and immediately becomes legal," said Gustavo Torres, director of CASA of Maryland, a nonprofit group that helps illegal immigrants. "This is totally different. You have to pay a fee, learn English, go through the system. It can take up to 13 years to become a resident. Even if you call it amnesty, I think most Americans are sophisticated enough to understand what Congress is trying to do. They are not going to be scared away."

In the 1986 amnesty, close to 3 million illegal immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America, were allowed to become permanent residents if they could prove they had lived in the United States for at least four years. In 1994, a second amnesty allowed another half-million to remain in the country by paying a large one-time fine. In 1997, another law granted amnesty to about 1 million Central Americans.

According to the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that has often been critical of liberal immigration policies, the 1986 amnesty carried a hefty price tag. That included more than $100 billion in social assistance programs and services over 10 years, $8 billion in public costs for illegal immigrant children and job displacement of an average of more than 187,000 U.S. citizens and legal immigrants each year.

"The amnesties population brought little human capital," the center stated in a 10-year report on the 1986 amnesty, adding that the majority of beneficiaries did not learn to speak English well after five years and that most remained in low-skilled jobs. Granting amnesty also encouraged other illegal immigrants to come, the report said, because they were "convinced the United States will eventually do it again."

For illegal immigrants in the Washington area, the suggestion that they are being offered amnesty draws looks of bewilderment and incredulity. In a parking lot in Falls Church, where dozens of Hispanic men gather daily in hopes of finding a job, conversation last week focused on the pitfalls of the new legislation, especially the fees -- totaling more than $6,000 -- and the requirement of returning home to apply for U.S. residency.

"It would be better than being hidden all the time. But no one will accept such a program because of the fear that if we have to leave the country, they won't let us come back," said Fernando, 34, a plumber from Peru who requested that his last name not be used. "I miss my kids all the time . . . but there is no way I can afford to go home to Lima and get stuck. There are so many people with no jobs at all."

Benito, a 50-year-old man from Honduras, was just as blunt. He said the economic situation in his country was so dire that he recently left his family and small cattle farm to seek his fortune as an illegal worker in the United States, even as the government is cracking down on such workers and their employers.

"Believe me, we all want to be legal. It is much harder now to get real jobs because the companies are all afraid," he said, referring to work site raids and arrests by immigration agents across the country in recent months. "It was a very difficult decision to come here, and I would love to have steady work. But if there is no guarantee I can come back, I am not interested."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company