WASHINGTON — Ted Kennedy, John McCain, George W. Bush and others who want sensible, real-world immigration reform — yes, I just used the president’s name in the same sentence with “sensible” — are going to have to stop running from the word “amnesty.” The new Senate immigration deal is going to get chased clean out of town unless its supporters stand and fight, even if the semantic battlefield isn’t one they would choose.

Opponents of the Senate plan are going to shout “amnesty” until they’re hoarse. That one word may be so powerful that it doesn’t just scuttle this deal — which has many flaws — but also forecloses any possibility of ambitious immigration reform for the rest of Bush’s term.

Just try telling Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other front-line officials to wait patiently in limbo for a couple more years. By then, public pressure will have forced border states and gateway cities to develop their own local immigration policies. The Bush administration is fond of letting difficult, expensive tasks roll downhill to state and local governments — hence the refusal to take federal control of rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. But even this White House recognizes that defining citizenship is a job for the federal government.

There are plenty of explosive words in this debate. When we talk about the 12 million or so people who are in this country on expired visas, or who never bothered to get visas at all, do we call them “undocumented migrants,” which implies that the thing to do is get them proper documents? Or do we call them “illegal aliens,” which implies that they are criminals who need to be punished?

I’m in the “undocumented migrants” camp, basically on aesthetic grounds — I think it’s dehumanizing to use the same noun for a Mexican day laborer who sneaked across the border that one would use for a six-armed visitor from another planet. Let’s be honest, though. Coming into the United States on a tourist visa and staying for months or years after the visa expires is a violation of U.S. law. Crossing the border with no visa at all is another violation of U.S. law. “Illegal” is a harsh word, but accurate.

It’s also accurate to point out, however, that those 12 million or so people are already settled here, that for the most part they are doing jobs our society wants done, and that any serious attempt to drive them out of the country — even “temporarily,” so they could apply to be let back in — would be indistinguishable from a pogrom.

Would SWAT teams of immigration officers descend on neighborhoods and go door to door? Would they snatch children out of schools? Where would they take these people? To special camps? To the nearest border?

That is the unthinkable scenario that advocates of a reasonable immigration solution should invoke when opponents yell “amnesty.” Yes, according to the new Senate bill, the vast majority of undocumented or illegal migrants would be able to remain in the United States, if they wanted to, without first leaving the country. They’d have to get to the “back of the line,” wherever that is, and they’d have to pay fines, and they’d have to have a clean record — but they could stay here. I think I could make a good argument that technically this is not amnesty, but I probably wouldn’t convince Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., or other diehard opponents. Nor should I have to.

It should be enough to point out that this alternative — round ’em all up, kick ’em all out — is truly insane. It would be lunacy to order the deportation of 12 million people, assuming you could find them, and it would be impossible to actually do such a thing.

We can and should argue about the impact of so many undocumented workers on wages, working conditions and job security in this country. We can and should argue about border security and immigration quotas. We can and should argue about issues of culture and assimilation — I happen to believe that those cultural issues are a crock and that recent Latino immigrants are strengthening this nation, as did previous waves of Irish, Italian, Eastern European and Asian immigrants, but it’s legitimate to debate that proposition.

What’s crazy is to fantasize about hunting down millions of men, women and children and forcibly driving them away. That’s what realists should say, in plain English (or Spanish), when fantasists yell “amnesty.”

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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