It is safe to say that the word amnesty remains a lightning rod in the immigration debate, with many elected officials, commentators and others labeling any and all positive immigration proposals with the “A” word.
Often, however, such proposals are mischaracterized once examined and explained. According to the Webster’s Dictionary, the word “amnesty” means “an act of forgiving; forgetting of offenses; a general pardon of the offenses of subjects against the government ” The same source defines “forgive” as “to grant remission of an offense, debt, fine or penalty; to free from the consequences of an injurious act.”
From a faith perspective, amnesty is not a dirty word. As people of faith, which the majority of Americans are, we have been granted amnesty from a loving and merciful God who in His compassion has offered us forgiveness and eternal life.
Nor should amnesty raise any concerns that it be from a civil perspective. Compassion and forgiveness are important American values, and as we have seen consistently over the years, Americans are a compassionate people.
Even if the idea of forgiving those who immigrate without documentation is offensive to some, it is difficult to understand how a program which provides a path to citizenship can be credibly described as amnesty.
Participation in the program would not be easy or cheap. Rather, it requires that immigrants pay a fine for their illegal status, pay back taxes, learn English, and wait for several years before becoming eligible to apply for permanent residency and citizenship.
Immigrants who earn permanent residency and citizenship by meeting these requirements are not being forgiven for their offense. They are earning their right to remain in the United States.
Not only is the program an arduous yet fair path to citizenship, it is good public policy that would benefit the United States. By allowing undocumented workers to remain in the United States and work, our nation would continue to receive the benefits of their labor in a variety of important industries, such as agriculture, service and construction. At the same time, we would uphold our longstanding labor policies of fair wages and safe working conditions — protections currently denied to undocumented workers.
It would support national security goals by encouraging the undocumented to come out of the shadows and identify themselves to the government. And it would promote family unity by ensuring that undocumented parents of U.S. citizen children — 98,000 of whom were deported and separated from their children last year — receive legal status and remain with their children.
Despite these advantages, critics of this formula argue that a path to citizenship rewards lawbreakers or worse, illegals and should be rejected solely on this premise.
The word “illegals” as applied to human beings is offensive and has no place in the public debate. No human being, imbued with God-given rights, is illegal.
The “lawbreaker” charge is a powerful sound bite but holds less sway when you consider that the effects of the lawbreaking, as well as the intent of the migrants who break the law, are not harmful but helpful to the economic well-being of our nation. The intent of the migrant is to come and work and the effect is that they support the U.S. economy by filling crucial jobs in important industries.
Moreover, we must consider whether U.S. immigration policy is so broken that it creates conditions which encourage illegal immigration and lawbreaking. While the United States has spent billions of dollars on border enforcement the past ten years, during the same period the number of undocumented has more than doubled. This is primarily because, once they run the gauntlet of the border, more than eighty percent of migrants find work with U.S. companies.
This powerful magnet of available jobs induces the flow of immigrants into this country. Our national immigration policies send mixed signals, with a “keep out” sign hung at the border and a “help wanted” sign at the workplace.
The challenge for lawmakers is to acknowledge that the law itself is inconsistent and then to fix it, first by creating a path to citizenship for immigrants in the United States and then creating legal channels for migrants to come and work in a legal, orderly and controlled manner.
To date, the public debate on immigration has been characterized in some measure by misinformation and labeling of immigrants. Words like ‘amnesty,” and “lawbreakers,” and “illegals” have become misleading terms of art which evoke emotional, not intellectual or reasoned, reaction.
Despite the harsh rhetoric, well over half of Americans support a path to citizenship for the undocumented, however it may be labeled. Perhaps we are beginning to realize that all of us, immigrants and citizens alike, have benefitted from forgiveness in our lives.
Hopefully, Congress will move beyond the emotion and include a path to citizenship in any final bill. To do this would serve the long-term national interest and demonstrate that effective policy solutions are based on facts, not rhetoric.
The Most Reverend John C. Wester is the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.