The fight over 'amnesty'

SUMMARY: Heading into the South Carolina primaries this month, immigration is a hot topic in the Republican race. Specifically, Sen. John McCain's role and the issue of "amnesty."

A century ago, residents of the Carolinas were in an uproar over immigration.

The arrival of thousands of newcomers from eastern and southern Europe triggered a hostile reception and severe accusations. They said immigrants spread diseases, refused to learn English and generally compromised the region's cultural identity. Some locals pressed the government to forcibly expel the new arrivals. The requests were rebuffed.

And while much has changed, experts see parallels in some of the tough talk emanating from South Carolina as residents prepare to vote in primaries. Most of the Republican presidential contenders are trying to tap into concerns about the economy and America's place in the world by attacking Sen. John McCain for supporting what they call "amnesty" for millions of undocumented workers.

McCain is an obvious target. In 2006, he teamed with liberal icon Edward M. Kennedy to propose a Senate plan backed by the White House that would have granted legal status to most of the estimated 12-million illegal immigrants in the country, as well as toughen border security and require employers to verify the legal status of workers. Last year, he co-sponsored a Senate bill that proposed allowing states to give illegal immigrants in-state tuition for higher education. The 2006 bill was incorporated into another measure that passed the Senate but then stalled. The 2007 proposal did not advance out of the chamber.

"It's the first hot-button issue people talk about," said Elaine C. Lacy, a historian at the University of South Carolina-Aiken who has studied immigration patterns in the state. "Amnesty represents a way of getting out from under the law, of being unaccountable. Many people think not holding people accountable just means more and more people will come here."

Aware that his resurgent campaign could get centered on the issue, McCain is fighting back, saying his plan is anything but amnesty. Typical was an exchange during a Jan. 5, 2008, Republican debate in New Hampshire, during which he accused Mitt Romney of mischaracterizing the plan in a series of ads.

"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. Many voters interpret it as giving criminals the equivalent of a "Get Out of Jail" card instead of diligently enforcing the law. 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.

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.

The immigration overhaul plan McCain and Kennedy introduced in 2006 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, thus not a general pardon.

"I've never supported amnesty," McCain said during the Jan. 5 debate. He also quoted Connecticut Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, a McCain supporter, who said anyone describing McCain's position that way "is a liar, is lying."

PolitiFact finds that the many hurdles included in his plan do not qualify as a general pardon, so his claim that his plan is not "amnesty" is True.

Singer predicts the amnesty rhetoric will be repeated in other states, because concern over illegal immigration has expanded over the past decade to virtually every corner of the country.

"It's clear that most people are in favor of legal immigrants becoming part of the economy, but there is a visceral divide between legal and illegal. People are upset and want to know why we aren't enforcing our laws," Singer said.

READ OUR FACT SHEET ON IMMIGRATION: A look at the latest statistics on immigration; the McCain-Kennedy proposal that many of the candidates have taken a stand on; and a summary of the immigration positions supported by each candidate. See it here.



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