Immigration: It's Been Over 20 Years Since Congress Considered Amnesty, So Why All the Ruckus?


It's been two decades since Congress last considered a proposal to grant amnesty to undocumented immigrants in the United States. Yet, in 2005 and 2007, proposals for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) died rapid deaths amid a flurry of outrage from citizens who believed that an amnesty was being considered on Capitol Hill. Right-wing radio hosts and bloggers were able to use the idea of amnesty -- or "shamnesty," as the sparkling wits of the conservative movement like to call it -- to gin up a firestorm of loud and angry protest against the bills.

One of the great ironies of the immigration debates of recent years is that a broad body of polling data shows that most -- or at least many -- of those inundating their representatives with angry letters, calls and emails would have approved of the immigration bills if they had known what they actually contained. In large part, that disconnect represents a communication failure by progressive immigration reformers. In some ways, it was a self-inflicted wound: the reform movement's choice of language -- the way the coalition for CIR "framed" their policies -- played a major role in making what should have been a compromise with broad public support into a poison pill.

Looking at a range of opinion data, political scientist Ruy Teixeira observed that when pollsters ask, "with no further specifications, whether we should make it easier for illegal immigrants to become legal workers, you get a negative response. ... And you get an even more negative response on whether we should make it easier for illegal immigrants to become citizens." But, added Teixeira, "that initial reaction turns around if it sounds like helping illegal immigrants to get legal worker status or to become citizens isn't a free lunch for those who broke the law." Teixeira found that in poll after poll, around 70 percent of Americans opposed offering amnesty, with many strongly opposing it.

But there was no amnesty offered in the comprehensive reform bills of 2005 and 2007. Amnesty was a central tenet of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, signed into law by Ronald Reagan; it simply legalized undocumented immigrants who underwent a health check and could prove they'd been residing in the country since before Jan. 1, 1982. If they were healthy and fulfilled that simple requirement (and paid a modest administrative fee), bingo, they were "legal."

Immigration reformers of recent years read the polls and, following public sentiment, never included an amnesty in their reform bills. Instead, they came up with an onerous "path to citizenship," which was anything but an amnesty. In a 2007 article, Time Magazine accurately described what the "path to citizenship" entailed in the 2007 bill:

Amnesty, as defined by its opponents, has come to mean getting forgiveness for free. But under the Senate's current compromise, the path for illegals is not anything close to easy. Under the compromise, the 12 million would face a 13-year process including $5,000 in fines per person, benchmarks for learning English and an onerous "touchback" provision that calls for the head of each household to leave job and family behind and return to his or her home country for an indeterminate amount of time to queue up for the final green card. Nothing free about that.
They also would have had to have clean criminal records and prove that they had paid all their taxes -- and there were other hoops to jump through.

As Teixeira noted, when the actual proposal was explained to people, it was supported by very large majorities. A CNN poll taken in May 2007, just before a massive groundswell of outrage killed the bill, found that 80 percent of those polled -- 4 out of 5 -- favored "creating a program that would allow illegal immigrants already living in the United States for a number of years to stay in this country and apply for U.S. citizenship if they had a job and paid back taxes." A New York Times/CBS poll conducted the same month found that two-thirds of respondents said, "Illegal immigrants who have a good employment history and no criminal record should gain legal status as the bill proposes: by paying at least $5,000 in fines and fees and receiving a renewable four-year visa." A USA Today/Gallup poll from mid-April 2007 also found that 8 in 10 favored granting immigrants a path to citizenship if they "meet certain requirements over a period of time."

Unfortunately for the country, those who favor immigration enforcement but oppose deeper systemic reforms can read the polls, too. So they lied -- repeating, again and again, that the bill contained an amnesty provision. It was, ultimately, a battle to see who could better "frame" the policy in the public's eye, and the immigration reformers got beat, badly. How badly? So badly that even many well-informed progressives were convinced that a provision for amnesty had been in the bills that were debated in '05 and '07.

Many observers have pointed to the ability of right-wing blogs and talk radio to project their messages into the public discourse. But in this case, reformers may have helped them out; with their choice of the phrase "a path to citizenship," they walked right into the restrictionists' trap.

To understand how, one needs to understand the reasons for the public's distaste for amnesty. For the most part, people simply hate the idea of giving those who had broken the law a free pass. They thought it was unfair; after all, Americans who commit minor offenses on par with immigration violations don't get off so easily. And what about those immigrants who were working to go through the legal process -- many believed that amnesty would allow undocumented immigrants to cut in front of them instead of waiting in line with everyone else.

Now, consider what images come to mind when one thinks of the word "path." A garden path, a path through the woods, the path of righteousness, a path to achievement -- the word connotes an easy way through a dense forest or difficult terrain -- a trail beaten down by the hard work of others who came earlier.

A "path to citizenship" in no way conjures images of a 13-year bureaucratic process or enormous, family budget-busting fines. In no way does it suggest hardship -- who would think that something described as a "path" would divide families, requiring the head of the household to go back to Italy or Lithuania or Guatemala or wherever to apply for citizenship?

By framing their proposal the way reformers did -- as an easy-sounding "path" -- their opponents had an easy time arguing that they were trying to "spin" amnesty as something else -- that they were repackaging an unpopular measure in different wrapping. Excuse the bad pun, but it left many Americans with the belief that reformers were leading them down the primrose path.

Now consider what might have been a more effective frame, one that suggested the difficult reality of what was actually being proposed. What if, rather than a "path to citizenship," the measure had been called something like "a process of status reconciliation and wait-listing"? Or "a process of legal reconciliation and wait-listing"? A "process" suggests something that is involved, that requires time and energy. "Reconciliation" suggests restoring a broken trust, righting a wrong or making sure the books add up. In religious terminology it means paying penance. "Wait-listing" also suggests a lengthy bureaucratic process, and assures people that undocumented immigrants would not be cutting in line in front of those who had been going through the legal channels.

Something along those lines doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but it could be the official designation; advocates could go on the cable chat shows with a "bumper-sticker" version: "Pay a fine and get in line." The frame itself makes it much harder for immigration restrictionists to spin the measure as amnesty -- there were no fines (however, there was a modest administrative processing fee) and no lines in 1986.

While immigration hard-liners were beating their "shamnesty" straw-man to a bloody pulp, recent proposals for comprehensive reform also failed to gain widespread support from immigrant rights activists. In trying to please everyone, the proposals satisfied no one. Among several reasons for their lack of enthusiasm was that not only was an amnesty never put on the table for negotiation, but the penalties that would be meted out to undocumented workers under the proposals were too stiff; they were disproportional to the offense of being in this country without proper papers and, more importantly, they priced many of the undocumented off of the "path" to citizenship.

In the latest proposal, a family of four might have had to pay $20,000 in fines and fees. Immigrant rights activists said there was little point in enacting a measure that would be priced so far out of reach of most undocumented workers that they would be forced to remain "illegal," working in the margins of the U.S. economy unprotected by either regulatory agencies or a union.

Eventually, we will debate another round of immigration reforms in Congress. In order to get the support of the progressive community as well as immigrant rights activists, the process of legalization will have to be accessible to most of those currently living and working in this country without valid papers.

By doing a better job of communicating what comprehensive reform plans actually call for -- paying a fine and then standing in line -- immigration reformers might make those fines manageable and proportional to violations of U.S. immigration laws. In other words, better framing might lead to significantly better policy, and that, in turn, would make it much more likely that the measure would have widespread support among progressive reformers.

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