Immigration or Amnesty? Host Liane Hansen speaks with Jacqueline Bhabha about the term of the word "amnesty". The word's connotation is at the heart of controversy over a U.S. immigration bill.
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Immigration or Amnesty?

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Immigration or Amnesty?

Immigration or Amnesty?

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This WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Immigration reform is still alive and kicking. The bill was barely breathing but now it might return to the Senate floor as early as this week. Supporters say it would provide a comprehensive overhaul of American immigration policies. Opponents regard it as amnesty for lawbreakers. Amnesty, it's become the buzzword of the debate.

Jacqueline Bhabha is a lecturer on migration issues at Harvard Law School, and she's in the studios of WBUR in Boston. Welcome to the program.

Ms. JACQUELINE BHABHA (Jeremiah Smith Jr. Lecturer in Law, Harvard Law School): Thank you.

HANSEN: How would you define the word, amnesty?

Ms. BHABHA: Well, I would follow the Greek definition, which is amnestia meaning oblivion. So it is really an act which erases all previous legal remembrance. So it's a situation where you're already wiping the slate clean.

HANSEN: How do you think it got to be so loaded a term?

Ms. BHABHA: I think it's loaded because it's used rhetorically by different parties in debates to signal a particular position. So I think in the current immigration debate, for example, it's used to suggest a sort of forgiving of lawbreaking. It's used in a loaded way to suggest that. We are meant to be a law-abiding society but we're not really playing by our own rules.

HANSEN: Does the immigration reform bill - that's now being considered - does it provide amnesty?

Ms. BHABHA: I would say, technically speaking, it's not an amnesty because the qualifications to getting the legal status are quite onerous. People have to demonstrate that they have permanent employment; people have to leave the country. So there are a whole set of measures, which are anything but oblivion.

On the other hand, of course, it is true to say that this would be a substantial benefit for a significant group of undocumented migrants who at the moment have no avenue to gaining a legal status. So in that sense, it is putting behind them something that they did which at the moment disqualifies them from a very substantial good, which is legal status.

So I guess my answer is slightly complicated to say that, technically speaking, what was proposed in the immigration reform bill was not an amnesty. But in terms of colloquial usage, yes, it is really what we often think of as an amnesty.

HANSEN: We want to let people hear what President Bush had to say when he addressed the issue directly this past week.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Amnesty is forgiveness with no penalty for people who have broken our laws to get here. In contrast, this bill requires illegal workers to pay a fine, to register with the government, to undergo background checks, to pay their back taxes, to hold down a steady job and to learn English in a set period of time.

HANSEN: So, Jacqueline Bhabha, is this then discussion of amnesty? Is this about the meaning of the word or do you consider it or think it might be rhetorical cover for a deeper political disagreement?

Ms. BHABHA: I think that is what it is. It is a rhetorical cover for a very deep political disagreement about the way forward with immigration. And, of course, this is a very serious problem. And many countries have tried to address the role of amnesty or legalization as part of a series of measures to bring people who are essential part of the workforce into the citizenry without abolishing effective immigration enforcement.

So I think in this context, it is interesting to look at Spain. The Spanish government decided in 2005 to grant an amnesty to 700,000 - over 700,000 undocumented migrants. And the terms were much more generous than the terms that was proposed in this immigration bill. All the undocumented migrants have to show though is that they have been the country for up to five months and that they have no criminal record and they have a job.

So on the spectrum of complete oblivion, I would say that the U.S. proposal is pretty onerous and pretty harsh. It's anything but wiping the slate clean.

HANSEN: Jacqueline Bhabha is a lecturer on migration issues at Harvard Law School, and she joins us from the studios of WBUR in Boston. Thank you so much.

Ms. BHABHA: Thank you.

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