I wanted to write this Tuesday morning, after I saw what happened in the Iowa caucuses. I wanted to sit down at the keyboard and, in a stream of consciousness worthy of James Joyce, express my belief that the acid test for the GOP would be the way it deals with immigration. I wanted to make some grand pronouncements about “amnesty” and “Muslims” and “Mexican rapists and murderers” and how this Zika scare is going to impact the election.
But I didn’t have time. I had clients to see, all of them the real-life manifestation of what the candidates have been emoting about on the trail.
Of course my views are biased. I’m an immigration lawyer and since 1979 a registered Democrat. I make my living by helping immigrants obtain legal status in this country. But I don’t think I’ve actually voted for a Democrat since 1979. It’s a label, nothing else.
Conservatives, who are willing to give me a break even though I have a D after my name because I’m a pro-life, anti-gay marriage loudmouth, often ask me how I can square my profession with my political beliefs, and this usually leaves me dumbfounded. That’s because it never occurred to me that being a conservative meant that I also had to agree that some wall with mythical powers could “make America great again,” a la Trump.
It never used to, in fact. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, two of the men I most admired, partially because of their ability to make liberals scream in horror as if the Angel of Death was flying over their patios, were very pro-immigration. Conservatives will come back and say that they were in favor of “legal” immigration, but “legal” immigration is whatever the law says it is. In other words, if the law permits someone who entered the country without permission to eventually obtain her green card and live permanently in the United States, she is a legal immigrant. Manner of entry, while troubling and important to some, is not the sole factor in whether someone gets to become an American citizen.
But now, to be a respected Republican or a tolerated Democrat with real pro-life, anti-gay marriage cred, you need to somehow caucus with Ted and Donald and a sometimes squeamish Marco and come out loud and strong against “amnesty.” That word, like some talisman, is thrown about so regularly by people who think they know what they’re talking about but who wouldn’t recognize a visa if it bit him on one of those body parts trafficked by Planned Parenthood (see, I really am a conservative, folks.)
So let’s be clear on what “amnesty” really is. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the simplest and most common definition of amnesty is “a decision that a group of people will not be punished or that a group of prisoners will be allowed to go free.” Now since we’re not dealing with prisoners, the relevant portion of that definition for our purposes is the first clause, “a decision that a group of people will not be punished.”
Anyone who has examined any of the proposals set forth by George W. Bush during his tenure, Sens. McCain and Specter a decade ago, and the Gang of Eight in 2013 would, if they were honest, admit that not one so-called illegal immigrant was going to be getting off scot-free. In the best case scenario, they were going to have to wait many years before actually becoming lawful residents or citizens, pay fines, learn English and clear the kind of background checks that not even Hillary Clinton could pass. (See … still a conservative.)
The proposal of the Gang of Eight was a bipartisan attempt to address head-on an issue that had been languishing in Congress and at grass-roots levels for years, with no sure resolution. In addition to providing a decade-long process for legalization, it also required certification that the border with Mexico and the U.S. (but, strangely, not Canada) be achieved within five years of its passage. The proposal passed the Senate, but died in the House.
I actually have no problem with people who say that the Gang of Eight proposal was imperfect. It was. It was onerous, filled with verbiage and made the Affordable Care Act look like a bubble gum wrapper in terms of clarity.
But it was an honest attempt to fix a problem, the terms of which most people can’t even agree upon. True conservatives are apparently required to reflexively yell, “amnesty!” any time there is an effort to eliminate that vast group of residents without identification, legal rights or even legal obligations. True liberals are supposed to huddle around the Statue of Liberty singing the praises of immigration, and attack their opponents as bigots.
So let’s be clear. The people who scream about amnesty are being dishonest, because nowhere in any piece of legitimate legislation has there been a “decision that a group of people will not be punished.” Telling someone to pay thousands of dollars in fines, wait many years before becoming legalized, possibly returning home and waiting outside of the country for long stretches or even relinquishing the right to ever become a citizen (a la Ted Cruz back when, imagine that, he was willing to cooperate with the Gang of Eight) is not exactly a slap on the wrist.
And the people like Hillary Clinton who stuff their rallies with Dreamers are nothing more than panderers using immigrants as a bargaining chip. That’s called exploitation. Sadly, though, it works from a PR perspective. And as someone who sees the game that is being played, because I deal in this stuff 24/7, that makes me angry.
Then there are the people who actually tried to do something, like Marco Rubio (who has since backtracked because the mob was after him) or Chuck Schumer, who was willing to sleep with the enemy to move the ball forward, instead of spouting rhetoric.
And that, sadly, is all this amnesty talk is. While I will not vote for Hillary or Bernie, I’m also not going to look at Trump or Cruz or any of the other GOP candidates who exploit, in their own fashion, irrational American fears. The whole idea that refugees are really Islamic State operatives waiting to pounce makes for great sound bites but is statistically fraudulent.
Which brings me full circle. The reason I couldn’t write this article when I wanted to, is because I had five Central American clients in my office trying to legally seek refuge in this country. They were doing it legally because there is a law which gives them that right. They deserve respect.
And unless the GOP candidates realize that, and stop talking about “amnesty,” they are guaranteeing that another Democrat named Clinton will be sitting in the Oval Office come January. So, run, Marco, run. And stop apologizing for one of the things you actually got right.
Christine M. Flowers is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and a lawyer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.