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Definitions clouding immigrant bill debate
San Francisco Chronicle


March 31, 2006

WASHINGTON - The immigration debate roiling the Senate and the country often boils down to one charged word: amnesty.

It is brandished like a loaded gun by opponents of expanded legal immigration and ducked like deadly fire by supporters.

Democrats use it to attack Republicans and Republicans use it to attack Democrats - or Republicans, as the need arises. Its meaning is narrow or expansive depending on who is flinging it about. It simplifies deep complexities, promises easy answers to hard questions, sensationalizes an angry debate and obscures truth.

An entire glossary of code words and phrases has appeared for the Senate debate that will occur in the next weeks over what to do about the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country and the 500,000 who arrive each year.




They include: "comprehensive reform," "border security," "temporary worker," "earned citizenship" and "virtual fence," among others.

The discussion is all the more confusing because it does not break along easy-to-understand partisan lines. President Bush is allied with liberal Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy. Business is holding hands with unions. Many conservatives support expanded legal immigration, while many liberals want tighter border controls. Democrats are torn. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein within a month did an about-face on guest worker programs, which she now embraces.

The bill on which the Senate opened debate Wednesday is based on legislation sponsored by Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Kennedy of Massachusetts - and was essentially written a year ago by two conservative House Republicans from Arizona, Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake.

In addition to tighter enforcement at the borders, it would allow all 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country to legalize their status if they pay a fine, submit to background checks, remain employed, pay taxes, learn English and study American civics. After roughly 11 years, another fee and more background checks, they could gain permanent residence and, ultimately, citizenship. Roughly 400,000 new temporary visas, based on market conditions, would be granted to new arrivals each year. These visa holders could apply for permanent residence.

Opponents call this amnesty. Supporters call it earned citizenship.

"We've got to take some of these definitions with a huge grain of salt," Flake said.

Legalizing those who broke the law coming over the border is a form of amnesty, opponents say, if that means these immigrants would be allowed to remain in the country and obtain legal status and eventually citizenship.

"This bill provides a direct path to citizenship to people who came here illegally," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who opposes the bill. "That's just a fact."

At the same time, the plan would require these immigrants to go through many lengthy and costly hoops. This differs from the 1986 amnesty in the last comprehensive immigration bill, which provided a blanket pardon.

"Amnesty means forgiveness. Amnesty means a pardon," Kennedy said. "Every individual is going to pay a penalty and go to the back of the line and have to earn their way through and take 11 years to become a citizen."

Even Sessions, for example, said he does not contemplate rounding up 12 million people and sending them home.

"We have to re-establish the principle of law," he said. "We don't have to remove all these people from America. How silly is that? It can't be done. Nobody is proposing that."

What border-control advocates contemplate, but seldom express, is making it so difficult to remain in the country that people will leave willingly. But even they concede that this process could take a generation.

The difficulty is inherent in the size of the illegal population - as large as the population of Ohio - and their human complications, including children who arrived with their parents as infants through no choice of their own and grew up in the United States.

Many Republicans recoil from the prospect of forcing such people to return home.

"You'd be sending home parents who brought kids here when they were 2," Flake said. "Do you leave the kids here with the neighbors for 10 years? That's not a very conservative position in my view."

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., supports a guest worker program that would require illegal immigrants to go home before applying to re-enter the United States - in part to avoid granting an amnesty.

On Monday, Kyl called the bill passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee an amnesty. But a day later he said the term is unhelpful to solving the immigration problem.

"Take a 70-year-old woman who's been here for 30 years and has kids who were born in this country and grandkids who are here," Kyl said. "Does it make sense for that individual to be forced to return home? I think you can say no.

"Does it make sense to take the 18-year-old kid that came from central Mexico up to Arizona to make some money so that he then can go home and provide for his family? He's been here a year and a half, he has no skill, no particular education. Does it make sense that automatically he would be on a path to citizenship in the United States? No."


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