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By Adriel Bettelheim January 15, 2008
By Ryan Kelly January 15, 2008

And it's no free ride

Sen. John McCain's immigration record has been a red flag for Republican primary voters both because it proposes granting legal status to most of the estimated 12-million illegal immigrants in the country and because McCain collaborated with liberal icon Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in developing it.

During a Republican debate on Jan. 5, 2008, McCain accused Mitt Romney of mischaracterizing the plan by describing it as amnesty — defined as a general pardon of offenders by a government.

"The fact is it's not amnesty," McCain said. "And for you to describe it as you do in the attack ads, my friend, you can spend your whole fortune on these attack ads, but it still won't be true."

Now, understand that the word amnesty is freighted with implications that go beyond immigration policy. Throughout the immigration debate in Congress in recent years, opponents have routinely labeled as "amnesty" any provision that would give illegal immigrants a path to legal status. Many voters interpret it as giving criminals the equivalent of a "Get Out of Jail" card instead of diligently enforcing the law.

Experts say its use here is designed to raise questions about whether McCain is willing to let rules slide and give lawbreakers access to social services and, more broadly, the American dream.

"Amnesty means, 'He's not for America in the same way I am' … They're trying to reach the people who believe in America for Americans. It's almost a code word for something else: fear and uncertainty about the economy, the war, where America is in the world," said Audrey Singer, an immigration expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Featured Fact-check

Back to McCain's charge that the immigration overhaul plan he and Kennedy introduced in 2006 is not amnesty: He's got a strong point, given the hurdles that plan contains.

It would have required illegal immigrants to apply for a six-year conditional nonimmigrant visa. They then could apply for legal permanent residence — a green card — on the condition that they pay $1,000 in fines, pay all back taxes, pass a criminal background check, stay employed and demonstrate an effort to learn English and civics. They would also pay a $1,000 application fee.

Because a green card holder must wait five years to apply for citizenship, this plan would make illegal workers eligible for citizenship 11 years after applying for the visa. Arlen Specter, senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and some other plan supporters have characterized the steps as "gates" that must be passed through before an illegal immigrant can qualify for citizenship.

This is in contrast to what President Ronald Reagan did in 1986, when he signed an immigration reform bill that legalized the status of 1.7-million people. In checking a previous claim on that plan, we found it did qualify as amnesty.

So, while McCain is more receptive to giving undocumented workers a path to citizenship than most of his GOP rivals, the many hurdles included in his plan do not qualify as a general pardon. We rule his statement True.

Our Sources

John McCain, News release , May 25, 2007

CQ Weekly, "Senate Splits on Guest Workers," by Michael Sandler and Elizabeth B. Crowley, April 3, 2006

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And it's no free ride

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