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Immigration Reform and the Strange Case of Amnesty: What's the Matter With Forgiveness Anyway?

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It is difficult to say how the term "amnesty" became anathema in the U.S. immigration debate. It may be due in part to the damaged reputation of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. That law legalized nearly 3 million persons, but its "three-legged" strategy -- legalization, employer sanctions and increased border enforcement -- failed to prevent large-scale illegal migration. Whatever the reasons, by the early 2000s, the dark art of political branding had found that "amnesty" did not sell, and particularly since Congress turned its attention to immigration reform in 2005, proponents of legalization have fought desperately against this characterization. It has not worked. Over the last eight years, politicians have used the label to help defeat comprehensive reform and more narrow legalization bills like the DREAM Act, to prevent persons whose family-based visa petitions have been approved to adjust to permanent residency in the United States (a "mini-amnesty"), and to protest prosecutorial discretion policies ("backdoor amnesties").

Some legalization proponents dislike the term. Given its derivation from Greek, it means "not remembering," but more to the point it implies forgiveness. Why, they suggest, do hard-working people who risk their lives to come and who endure hardship and indignities to support their families need forgiveness? Still, most advocates recognize that laws in a democratic society, however imperfect, need to be followed, and that violations should be acknowledged and punished in proportion to their severity. They may be comfortable with the idea of an amnesty. However, they publicly use the more politically palatable language of atonement: They would require the unauthorized to make reparation through a substantial fine and to "earn" the right to remain through their labor.

The better question may be why legalization opponents -- many with strong religious convictions -- revile the notion of amnesty. And why does the (mostly) religious American public disfavor this concept? Consider the Judeo-Christian tradition. In Hebrew Scripture, we read that every seventh year was to be a Sabbath Year, when debts were to be forgiven, the needs of the poor met, and slaves freed (Deuteronomy 15:1-18). Every 50th year (seven Sabbath years) was a "Jubilee" year in which indentured servants were to be released from service and land was to revert to its original owners (Leviticus 25: 8-55). This was an amnesty, and a very consequential one.

Moreover, in this tradition, the God of ancient Israel demands justice for the ger, the "stranger." The term refers to someone outside the established order who has no standing, civic or economic, no resources, no recourse, no way to redress wrongs -- a person vulnerable to whatever exploitation might be visited upon him. Like the widow and orphan, the ger is the object of God's special concern, care and protection. God's "justice" and "judgment" require fair and equitable treatment under the law: the law applies to the ger and the native alike (Leviticus 24:22). In addition, the Israelites are taught to identify with the ger: "you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 22:20 and 23:9).

In the New Testament, Christ conditions salvation on welcoming the stranger and other oppressed persons (Matthew 25:31-46). During Holy Week (just passed), Christians celebrate their own redemption. They worship the one who sacrificed Himself on the cross -- in an ultimate expression of identification with the outsider -- in order that their sins might be forgiven. They believe that humankind did nothing to earn God's grace or forgiveness (to the contrary), but nonetheless benefits from a kind of ultimate amnesty.

Of course, good people can and do take different public policy positions, including on immigration reform. But isn't it, at the very least, unseemly for political leaders to use language steeped in their own religious values of forgiveness to oppose proposals that would do just that, and instead to champion laws that would criminalize assistance to strangers and deny them the ability to subsist? Why have even faith-based groups run from their own language and traditions in the public sphere? What is the matter with the biblical tradition of forgiving wrongs, and protecting the vulnerable under the law?