GOP says Obama immigration plan is 'amnesty.' Is that accurate?

President Obama is poised to take executive action on immigration, a move many Republicans equate to granting amnesty. But nothing Mr. Obama can do will be permanent.

Susan Walsh/AP
President Obama speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on Nov. 8. The GOP equates Mr. Obama's impending unilateral order awarding legal status to millions of immigrants to amnesty.

Does President Obama’s upcoming unilateral action on immigration constitute “amnesty"?

That’s the word Republicans opposed to the move use to describe it. Just look at Sunday’s morning news shows to see that rhetorical trope in action. Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah, on “Face the Nation,” said that one of the policies voters rejected in the midterm elections was “possible executive action on amnesty.” Over at “Meet the Press,” Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) of Louisiana said “it’s not going to be popular to grant amnesty to millions of folks ... that are here illegally.”

“Amnesty” is a powerful word, of course, which is why the GOP uses it as a talking point. It connotes forgiveness for a past transgression. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines it as “a general pardon granted by a government, especially for political offenses.”

We don’t yet know the details of Mr. Obama’s action, so we can’t say for sure whether it would fit this definition. Preliminary indications are that the White House will defer the deportation of people in the country illegally whose children are American citizens or have permanent residence green cards. That could affect some 3.3 million undocumented immigrants, according to some estimates.

These people would receive work permits and Social Security numbers and could travel freely within the US without worry that they will be seized by law enforcement and kicked out. That sure seems to fit one aspect of the word “pardon,” since they broke the law by sneaking into the US in the first place.

In that sense, “amnesty” might be accurate.

But in another sense it isn’t. Obama’s action would be temporary, according to numerous reports about his impending order. He cannot grant illegal immigrants permanent citizenship or green cards. He can only use his law enforcement discretion to promise to defer prosecution for their status.

So if “amnesty” means lasting forgiveness, it doesn’t fit. A future president could undo Obama’s move with a stroke of a pen. Congress could pass legislation that would negate it – though a president would have to sign the bill if it were to become law.

The time-limited nature of Obama’s upcoming immigration move isn’t getting a lot of attention, notes Josh Voorhees at Slate. Both sides have an incentive to try and make the action seem more world-historical than it actually is.

“As the Washington hype machine kicks into high gear over the next several weeks, keep in mind that the bulk of Obama’s moves will not be permanent ones. Real, lasting change to our immigration policy can come only from Congress,” Mr. Voorhees writes.

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