When President Barack Obama first announced the federal government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012 — offering protection from deportation and the possibility of a work permit to U.S. residents who had become illegal immigrants as minors — he sold this sensible policy with two mild fibs and one king-sized whopper.
“This is a temporary stopgap measure,” he declared, willfully disregarding the sardonic maxim of fellow University of Chicago ex-faculty Milton Friedman that “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.” DACA, Obama also insisted, was “not a path to citizenship.” That would certainly be news to more than a thousand DACA recipients who’ve since become U.S. citizens through other means, but who are here and can apply with the cover afforded by Obama’s program.
But the principal fiction, the one designed to sidestep decades’ worth of political minefields on one of our most difficult and emotional issues, was Obama’s brazen dismissal of the A-word.
“Now, let’s be clear,” the president said, leading with the classic politician tell for impending opacity, “this is not amnesty, this is not immunity.”
The whole point of DACA is immunity: from deportation, and the existential uncertainties that flow from the possibility that at any moment you could be detained, cuffed, then dropped off in a country you might not even know. When there are millions of people living outside of any given law, not only is that an excellent moment to ask whether the problem is prohibition rather than criminality — as George H.W. Bush observed during the Republican presidential primary debate in 1980, “we’re creating a whole society of really honorable, decent, family-loving people that are in violation of the law” — but the situation also requires that the federal government prioritize scarce law enforcement resources.
It’s “amnesty,” however, that’s the real linguistic third rail here, and it is well past time that we stomped on it.
That starts with acknowledging that there’s something unsavory about the physical sound of the word itself. “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion” was a brutally effective negative characterization of George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972. The amnesty then in question was for Vietnam War draft-dodgers, who Jimmy Carter pardoned upon taking office in 1977.
In more recent vintage, the term has become radioactive for any Republican foolish enough (or brave enough, depending on your point of view) to seek a comprehensive legislative fix for our bewilderingly bureaucratized legal immigration processes, the policing of that moment when foreign nationals become illegal (either by an illegal border crossing or allowing a once-valid visa to expire), and what to do with the estimated 11 million U.S. residents currently here without official authorization.
As Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) could tell you, being pegged as a proponent of amnesty (or “shamnesty,” if you prefer it in the original conservatese) is a heck of a way to win a Republican primary in the 21st century. Mitt Romney, whose role in driving the modern GOP Trumpward on immigration is underappreciated, nearly wedged McCain out of the 2008 presidential race by tagging him early and often with the A-word, to the point where the avowedly straight-talking senator started campaigning openly against immigration bills he had previously co-sponsored.
When J.D. Hayworth primaried McCain in 2010 on the amnesty question, things got even uglier, with McCain retreating to a glaringly insincere “complete the danged fence” commercial in an ultimately successful effort to hang on to his seat.
What gives the word such political potency? In part, it’s expression of an uncomfortable truth that immigration reformers routinely dismiss and often deny: that legalizing the residency of people living here illegally amounts to forgiving their (or their parents’) infractions, while ratifying their cutting in line ahead of other would-be legal immigrants. You do this because of a logistical and moral tradeoff: deporting millions of “dreamers” would be a net negative relative to the costs associated with them staying vs. the moral hazard of rewarding rule-breaking. But let’s admit that rule-of-law objections are valid and deserved to be confronted head-on, not hand-waved into oblivion.
The latter is what Obama tried to do when attempting to expand DACA into DAPA — Deferred Action for Parents of Americans — to protect millions of parents from deportation in November 2014. “I know some of the critics of the action call it amnesty,” the president said. “Well, it’s not. Amnesty is the immigration system we have today. Millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules, while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time. That’s the real amnesty, leaving this broken system the way it is.”
Not only did his formulation mangle the plain meaning of the word, it zipped over the record-setting deportation exertions of Obama’s first term.
“Amnesty” isn’t contorted any less by erstwhile reformers like Sen. Marco Rubio, who have argued that the word no longer applies if conditions are attached — fines, background checks, touching back to the country of origin. If that were the case, why would we still use the term “tax amnesty” when companies or individuals are asked to pay a one-time fine? Or when owners of items deemed to be illegal, whether weapons or pit bulls, are spared any penalties upon the condition of handing them over to authorities? Conditional amnesty is a category of, well, amnesty.
Ronald Reagan wasn’t shy about the word back in 1984 when, in a debate with Walter Mondale, he said, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.” The resulting 1986 Reagan amnesty of course, is what helped taint the word in the first place, since the ranks of the undocumented more than doubled over the next three decades. That underscores another virtue of forthright language: It forces you to work through potential unintended consequences.
Devising a more logical immigration policy means having an honest discussion about it, rather than conspicuously emotional arguments about dangerous criminals, soft-focus dreamers, border walls and who’s going to pay for them. Slashing the number of legal immigrants, as President Trump has proposed, is a surefire way to increase the number of undocumented immigrants, given what we know about supply and demand. And it is both rational and humane to deprioritize deportation for young people who consider this country home and are living as Americans, in every sense but the official. This is why the notion of kicking the dreamers out is so persistently unpopular.
Václav Havel, the Czech dissident-turned-president who fashioned an entire political philosophy out of calling things by their proper names, once warned of “the fiendish way that words are capable of betraying us — unless we are constantly circumspect about their use.” In this way, those who want to grant amnesty have hurt their own cause by denying that that’s what they want to do. They’ve helped turn a concept that’s fundamentally about generosity into a four-letter word. So, to rescue another debased phrase, let’s be clear. Codifying DACA, or some version of it, would be an amnesty. And it’s worth doing.
Clarification: A previous version of this article implied that DACA provided a path to citizenship. It does not, but it affords applicants more time to make their case through other means.