05/02/2013 12:07 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2013

Moving Beyond "Amnesty"

There's a movement afoot to get the New York Times to stop using the term "illegal immigrant." Earlier this month, the Associated Press decided that they will no longer use the expression. The aversion stems from the stigma and inaccuracy of calling a person -- rather than their behavior--illegal.

But there's another word that has long been stirring up trouble in the immigration debate: "amnesty." And it appears to be more powerful in swaying public opinion than "illegal immigrant."

Though reaction to the Senate "Gang of Eight's" comprehensive immigration bill, released two weeks ago and slightly modified yesterday, has been generally positive, there are naysayers.

The most vocal opponents of the bill use the word "amnesty" to attack the provisions giving unauthorized immigrants a pathway to legal status. "Amnesty" connotes a pardon or forgiveness of wrongs committed, with no punishment attached. And, in fact, the bill does allow for unauthorized immigrants to "get right" with the law.

But it is by no means a free pass. The criteria to become a legal permanent resident are tough: pass a background check, pay taxes, fees, and a fine of $1,000, register for the Selective Service, demonstrate work history in the U.S. and English proficiency, wait 10 years for the government to clear the backlog of those who have been waiting to immigrate to the U.S. through legal channels, and wait for border and interior enforcement triggers to be met. If all these conditions are met, an individual will be eligible to naturalize after an additional three years. As Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and member of the Gang of Eight, quipped, "The path to citizenship is not an easy task; half of my family would be excluded."

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, also a Republican, has repeatedly called the status quo of 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. "de facto amnesty," arguing that an earned legalization program will not only involve reparation but also increase security by requiring the 11 million to register with the government and get background checks--an argument that stands to gain more traction in the wake of the Boston bombings.

But regardless of whether or not the legalization provisions laid out in the Senate bill are technically an amnesty, the word has become a code used to stir up opposition and provoke anger. The bill is declared "amnesty" by those who oppose it, usually without any viable alternative solution to the problem of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. "What part of illegal don't you understand?" and "the law's the law" are the Pharisaical chants that go along with accusations of "amnesty." And in a sign that "amnesty" alone may no longer be a strong enough insult, a conservative radio talk show host in Florida used the term "pure amnesty" to describe the bill, and Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa called it "aggressive and outrageous amnesty."

Yet, those who oppose the bill on "rule of law" grounds don't mention the "amnesty" being given to employers who have illegally hired workers all these years, benefitting from higher profits by undercutting wages and working conditions. The Senate bill explicitly protects them from prosecution based on employment information provided by immigrants applying for legal status.

What about the political "amnesty" for our leaders--Republicans and Democrats--who failed to enforce the law? And what about us consumers who have enjoyed lower prices for food, houses, and childcare because we looked the other way while people willing to work under the table gave us cheaper goods and services? Are we to be held accountable? No, immigrants are expected to pay the price for something we have all been complicit in. And yet, some say the bill is too merciful to them. That's when it becomes hard to believe that their opposition is really about the rule of law.

There is certainly room for debating this bill, including the legalization program. But rather than lobbing loaded words like "amnesty," let's have a civil discussion about how to solve the problem that we've gotten ourselves into and how to prevent it from happening again.

Jill H. Wilson is a senior research analyst and associate fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program. Her work focuses primarily on immigration and other demographic trends, and the changing geographical settlement of metropolitan areas.