SAN DIEGO – Dreamers may have done the immigration debate a big favor by killing the “a-word.”
As they try to shoot down plans to legalize the undocumented, immigration restrictionists in both parties love using a certain term. For many of these folks, anything that allows illegal immigrants to lawfully remain in the United States – by giving them permanent legal status, with or without a path to citizenship – amounts to amnesty. Pure and simple.
So when President Donald Trump recently unveiled a plan that would legalize 1.8 million undocumented young people known as Dreamers, it should have come as no surprise that right-wing media site Breitbart reflexively labeled the commander in chief “Amnesty Don.”
On the left, writer Mickey Kaus tweeted disapprovingly that Trump was offering “a big, immediate amnesty” for the Dreamers in exchange for promised changes to legal immigration that might not materialize for many years.
On the right, conservative writer Ann Coulter wrote that the headline about Trump’s immigration plan could have read: “TRUMP ANNOUNCES SAME FAILED AMNESTY DEAL WE HAD 30 YEARS AGO.”
Coulter was referring to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which was signed into law by President Reagan and which ultimately gave permanent legal status and a path to citizenship to nearly 3 million people.
It still sticks in the craw of many conservatives that Reagan gave away so much to the pro-amnesty crowd – and appeared to get so little in return.
Today, a new generation of conservatives worries that Trump is likewise being taken to the cleaners – and offering a full-fledged amnesty.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it’s worth asking: What does the “a-word” really mean, anyway? According to Merriam-Webster, amnesty is “the act of an authority (such as a government) by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.” Collins Dictionary of Law defines it as “an act of a sovereign power waiving liability for a past offense.” And Black’s Law Dictionary defines amnesty as “a sovereign act of pardon and oblivion for past acts, granted by a government to all persons (or to certain persons) who have been guilty of crime or delict, generally political offenses.”
Do you know to whom much of this doesn’t apply? Dreamers.
After all, as everyone seems to agree, these undocumented young people broke no laws. And they committed no offense – at least not knowingly or intentionally – when they were brought to the United States as children, often against their will.
And the Dreamers certainly aren’t looking for a pardon, or a waiver of “liability,” or some other version of a free ride. They aren’t ducking out on accountability.
In fact, nearly 700,000 of the 1.8 million people to whom Trump is offering legal status have already been vetted. It happened when they turned themselves over to authorities as part of the application process for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). They got fingerprinted, had their photos taken and handed over their home addresses to immigration agents.
That’s pure accountability, from start to finish. And so it only makes conservatives look foolish and uninformed when they blast DACA as an “unlawful executive amnesty.” That’s way off.
Of course, conservatives are likely to keep overusing the word “amnesty” – even if it means applying the term where it doesn’t belong. They’ve been doing it for more than 30 years, and they aren’t about to stop now.
Yet, along the way, they should remember what they themselves always tell the rest of us about words like “racism” – that the more you use it, the more it loses its power.
And sure enough, while the word “amnesty” used to fire up those who argued that we shouldn’t reward bad behavior or excuse lawbreaking, it doesn’t appear to have the same bite today.
A recent poll by Quinnipiac University found that 73 percent of American voters – including 49 percent of Republicans – support giving legal status to Dreamers.
In the immigration debate, many Americans seem to have mellowed, matured and moved on from old slogans. More and more, they have no use for what were once highly charged words such as “amnesty.” And, with any luck, soon they'll have no use for those who can’t get beyond that kind of loaded vocabulary.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available through every podcast app.