Saturday, May 20, 2006

Word Play - It depends on what the definition of "amnesty" is!

According to the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law 1996 edition, the definition of Amnesty is:
"an act of clemency by an authority (as a government) by which pardon is granted esp. to a group of individuals "

Word Play
Bush is trying to redefine the meaning of amnesty. Can he convince his base to accept it?
By Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey

May 16, 2006 - At the heart of President Bush’s Oval Office address on immigration was an attempt to play definitional politics. Many presidents try to redefine controversial words when they get into trouble. President Bush has often revised and expanded what the war on terror means. But for now the word that the White House finds most troubling is “amnesty.”

For several weeks Bush’s aides have grumbled about their conservative critics hurling around the word “amnesty” with little regard for what the word means or how it translates into immigration policy. So the president attempted to write his own definition on Monday as he tried, once again, to sell his plan on illegal immigrants.

“We must face the reality that millions of illegal immigrants are here already,” he explained. “They should not be given an automatic path to citizenship. This is amnesty, and I oppose it. Amnesty would be unfair to those who are here lawfully, and it would invite further waves of illegal immigration.”

If that wasn’t enough, the president took a second stab at defining amnesty by describing something it isn’t. “Some in this country argue that the solution is to deport every illegal immigrant, and that any proposal short of this amounts to amnesty,” he said. “I disagree.”

In fact, the president supports one form of amnesty and one form of an automatic path to citizenship. He just opposes amnesty for all illegal immigrants. His plan is what he described as “a rational middle ground” (as opposed to the irrational extremes). “That middle ground recognizes there are differences between an illegal immigrant who crossed the border recently, and someone who has worked here for many years, and has a home, a family, and an otherwise clean record,” he said.

Bush’s explanation of the policy options is a significant redefinition of the word “amnesty”. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, amnesty is “the act of an authority (as a government) by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.” By most measures, the group of individuals covered by the president’s middle ground is large.

The president’s prospects in this debate depend far less on photos of troops on the border, and far more on his ability to convince his base that they have misunderstood the term “amnesty.” In legislative terms, Bush supports the broad thrust of a compromise drawn up by Senators Mel Martinez of Florida and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. That deal allows eventual citizenship for illegal immigrants who can prove they have been in the United States for at least five years. They would also have to pay a fine, back taxes, learn English and undergo a criminal background check. It may not be a full amnesty for all, but it can easily be considered a partial amnesty.

Bush’s aides say that doesn’t mean the president is adopting the Martinez-Hagel compromise. “We are supportive,” said one senior aide, “but it doesn’t mean we are endorsing every crossed T or dotted I.” Why not? Mostly because he wants to maintain some wiggle room in what everyone expects to be a fraught negotiation with Republicans in the House, who oppose any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

More than anything, Bush’s immigration proposal will be a test of whether or not the White House has any political muscle to flex in Washington, particularly with wayward Republicans in Congress. In some respects, however, he just can’t win. Many GOP lawmakers have been strongly critical of Bush in recent weeks for not being more forthcoming on the specifics of what he will and will not accept in an immigration bill. Now he has laid out some specifics, there’s something else that House Republicans want to know: Would he veto a bill without a worker program? The White House won’t say.

The more Bush gives in to Congress and talks about what he wants, the more skeptical his party seems to be. “I am happy to see President Bush go beyond talk and take some action,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, a longtime Bush ally, said in a statement to reporters last night. “But…calling out the National Guard, significant as though they may be, will not change the pervasive illegality of our current immigration system to one that works.”

Several House Republicans spoke out after the presidential address to urge Bush to focus only on border security, not his proposed worker program or partial amnesty. “While I appreciate the president’s willingness to tackle big problems, I have real concerns about moving forward with a guest worker program or a plan to address those currently in the United States illegally until we have adequately addressed our serious border security problems,” House Majority Whip Roy Blunt said in a statement to reporters.

Meanwhile, other Republicans raised questions about logistics. Should we deploy National Guard troops along the border at a time when the force is under increased pressure thanks to the war in Iraq? Some lawmakers, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, expressed concern about involving guardsmen in what has traditionally been a law enforcement-only activity. Specter, while calling the president’s pitch “very helpful,” told reporters “we will have to legislate carefully” to make sure the guardsman aren’t involved in law enforcement “or activities which are inappropriate.”

While lawmakers dive into the weeds of legislative language and immigration rules, President Bush is likely to evoke the big picture. This is a highly personal issue for him, say his aides, who point out that he has been fine-tuning almost every line of Monday’s TV address for the last three weeks.

Moreover, his thinking on immigration has been shaped by several factors: his dismay at Europe’s turmoil over immigration, his experience as Texas governor and his own recent reading of the history books—especially several volumes about William Jennings Bryan and the 1920s restrictions on immigration. The president believes those restrictions contributed in part to the depression of the 1930s. “He keeps coming back to the point that we shouldn’t forget our own history,” said one senior White House aide, “and what has made our own country what it is today.”