There’s an "A" word in the Republican primary for president -- "amnesty."
When Newt Gingrich outlined a more flexible immigration policy at a CNN debate on Nov. 22, 2011, his opponents seized the chance to brand him an amnesty supporter.
Mitt Romney said the next day that Gingrich "offered a new doorway to amnesty last night, which as I said last night in my view is the wrong course for a Republican debate."
About a week later, Romney repeated his criticism of Gingrich in an interview with Brett Baier of Fox News. "If he's going to do what I believe he said he was going to do for those people who would be allowed to stay permanently and become citizens, that would be providing for them a form of amnesty," Romney said.
We decided to investigate the amnesty charge, to see if it was an accurate way to describe Gingrich’s policies.
Before we go any further, we need to take a stab at defining amnesty. Merriam Webster defines amnesty as "the act of an authority (as a government) by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals."
In recent American politics, though, the usual standard for amnesty is the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. That law, supported by President Ronald Reagan, said that illegal immigrants could become legal permanent residents if they could prove they were in this country by Jan. 1, 1982, and met a few other minimal requirements. The law was widely described as an "amnesty" program, both then and now.
Gingrich’s vision for immigration policy is that it takes place in steps, with the first step of securing the border between the U.S. and Mexico. He also supports a program for guest workers, to allow foreign nationals into the United States to work. Finally, some illegal immigrants would be allowed to stay.
"Once you've put every piece in place, which includes the guest worker program, you need something like a World War II Selective Service Board that, frankly, reviews the people who are here," Gingrich said at the debate. "If you've come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home, period. If you've been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you've been paying taxes and obeying the law, (and) you belong to a local church, I don't think we're going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.
"The Krieble Foundation has a very good red card program that says you get to be legal, but you don't get a pass to citizenship. And so there's a way to ultimately end up with a country where there's no more illegality, but you haven't automatically given amnesty to anyone."
Gringrich’s sets a higher bar for allowing people to stay than the law under Reagan. Based on his comments at the debate and a detailed 10-point plan on his website, Gingrich says his proposal isn’t amnesty for several reasons: It is not citizenship but legal residency; immigrants would have to prove "deep ties to America, including family, church and community ties;" and they would pay a fine of at least $5,000.
In the course of our research, we noticed that advocates for more legal immigration often used this distinction. In their view, amnesty means widespread legalization with few requirements. A path to legality or earned legalization, on the other hand, includes fines, waiting periods, proof of English language proficiency, criminal background checks and other criteria.
Romney, on the other hand, has defined amnesty as giving any kind of special preference to people who are now in the country illegally.
"My view is that those people who have waited in line patiently to come to this country legally should be ahead in line, and those who’ve come here illegally should not be given a special deal or a special accelerated right to become a permanent resident or citizen," Romney said the day after the debate.
Those who oppose more immigration tend to agree with Romney.
"Anything that turns an illegal resident into a legal resident one way or another is an amnesty," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports low levels of immigration, when we asked him about this.
After the debate, Krikorian scolded Gingrich in a blog post on the National Review Online for claiming his plan wasn’t amnesty: "If you want to make a case for amnestying long-established illegal aliens, that can be an honorable position, but call it for what it is. Don’t lie to voters, imagining they’re too stupid to see through your deceit."
On the other side of the issue is Tamar Jacoby of ImmigrationWorks USA, which represents businesses who favor more immigration. She said Gingrich’s avoidance of the loaded term amnesty was understandable, since his plan is limited and requires illegal immigrants to meet various requirements.
She praised Gingrich for his honesty. "He’s getting pilloried for saying we can’t deport 11 million people," she said. "At least Newt is saying, ‘There’s a problem here, let’s come to grips with it.’ "
During Romney’s recent interview with Fox News, Baier pressed Romney about what he would do with the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants who are already in the country, noting that Romney has stopped short of urging mass deportation in past interviews.
"You know, there's great interest on the part of some to talk about what we do with the 11 million. My interest is saying, let's make sure that we secure the border, and we don't do anything that talks about bringing in a new wave of those or attracting a new wave of people into the country illegally," Romney said.
"Amnesty" has become a radioactive term in American politics, and Republicans in particular do not want their immigration policies described that way. Gingrich supports allowing illegal immigrants who have been in the United States for many years to apply for legal status. He’s said that process should look at each individual and whether they have "family, church and community ties." They would also have to pay a fine. What he describes sounds like a more restrictive process than the 1986 law supported by Reagan that allowed for widespread amnesty.
Still, the word amnesty means simply forgiving groups of people who have broken the law. Most legal amnesties include some sort of process. Words matter, and under a more straightforward definition, Gingrich’s plan is clearly amnesty, though it may be limited in scope.
Romney said that Gingrich's plan offers "a new doorway to amnesty," which suggests that Gingrich's plan allows for legalization without being the same as the older amnesty law. We rate Romney’s statement Mostly True.