John Sheirer: ‘Amnesty’ wrong word for Obama order on immigration

Monday, December 15, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Since President Obama announced his executive actions on immigration, the word “amnesty” has been flying around more frequently than flakes in a New England snowstorm. Social media and the news are full of rants about “Obama’s amnesty.”

All of this ignores a basic fact: The president’s executive actions don’t come close to actual “amnesty.” “Amnesty” is a pardon. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter granted actual amnesty in the form of an unconditional pardon to people who fled the Vietnam draft.

President Obama’s immigration plan is far different.

The president’s actions do not make undocumented immigrants into citizens or absolve them from addressing their legal status. His actions simply provide the opportunity for some undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for more than five years to apply for temporary relief from deportation — but only if they have documented children and pass a background check. This will keep those families together and bring them into the mainstream of society where they can fully pay taxes and contribute positively to American culture. That’s not amnesty.

“Amnesty” (like “socialism” and “death panel”) is an inflammatory term used by Republicans to agitate their base. Republicans want people to say, “Hey, I don’t get amnesty, so why should illegal aliens?” Republicans know that people who actually understand the issue won’t say, “Hey, I don’t have to do through a complicated enforcement and application process to stay in the country, so why do some illegal aliens?” The boring facts don’t stir enough anger, so Republicans prefer a rabble-rousing fiction to pit “us” against “them.”

In addition to misusing the term “amnesty,” opponents of the president are wrong about the policy itself. Republicans have falsely claimed that the president’s actions are unprecedented. In reality, every president (Republican and Democrat) since Eisenhower has taken executive action on immigration.

Republicans claim that Obama’s actions are unconstitutional, but the courts have affirmed that all presidents have wide-ranging legal authority to prioritize law enforcement. Recently, more than one hundred legal scholars and immigration experts signed a letter stating that the president’s actions are legal, despite the outcry from Republicans that the president is acting like a king who rules by decree. In fact, President Obama is on pace to issue the fewest executive orders per year of any president in more than a century.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, claimed that Obama’s actions reject the will of the people, especially considering the 2014 election. The fact-checker PolitiFact gave Cruz a “false” rating, noting that 2014 voters actually support the policies enacted by the president.

Republicans also claim that Obama’s action will hurt the economy, but actual economists say immigration reform boosts economic growth. Republicans have cited a widely discredited report from the conservative Heritage Foundation that claims immigration reform will cost trillions of taxpayer dollars in government benefits doled out to undocumented immigrants. In fact, that’s untrue because the people covered by Obama’s plan will not be eligible for the vast majority of government benefits, and they’ll sow more in taxes than they reap in very limited benefits.

Reform opponents also claim that Obama should “secure the borders” before anything else. The president’s executive actions include increased border security provisions.

The Obama administration has actually been strict about border security. Approximately two million people have been deported under Obama’s watch, more than under President Bush. And fewer people have entered the country illegally in recent years than during the administration of Republican hero Ronald Reagan.

House Speaker John Boehner claimed that Obama’s actions would “poison the well” for immigration reform in Congress. In truth, Republicans themselves have been pouring the poison for years. Boehner won’t bring bipartisan immigration reform that passed the Senate to a vote in the House — even though the bill would certainly pass. If Republicans hadn’t also blocked immigration reform under President Bush back in 2007, then we would have laws that actually addressed the problems associated with illegal immigration, rather than the current inadequate laws.

Republicans rail that Obama himself has said for years that he can’t unilaterally change immigration law. Of course, changing the law is Congress’s job — a job Republicans have blocked. The president’s actions are focused on enforcement, not changing the law. That’s a big difference Republicans hope their followers are too angry to notice.

When I share these facts with my Republican friends, they cling to their cries of “amnesty” and rants about a dictatorial president. They call me an “Obamabot” with blind loyalty to the president. But I’ll remain loyal to the verifiable facts about the president’s actions, not Republican misinformation. And I’ll be loyal to the basic definition of the word “amnesty,” knowing that the false resentment it engenders, like so much Republican outrage these days, simply doesn’t reflect reality.

John Sheirer of Northampton writes a monthly column. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.