Thursday, May 18, 2006

AMNESTY: Hagel Plays the Name Game as Nelson Looks to November

by Kyle Michaelis
Would someone mind explaining to me how anyone can say with a straight face that President Bush's immigration proposal doesn't contain an amnesty component? The facts pretty much speak for themselves - millions who entered the country illegally will have the opportunity to stay put and become citizens if they meet certain criteria.

They might have to pay a fine. They might have to jump through a few hoops. But, at the end of the day, they're going to have the opportunity to become lawful residents, then citizens of the United States. Like it or not - run away from the word as far as you might desire - to the American public, as the immigration debate has been framed, that is amnesty.

But, behold this AP article that quotes our own Sen. Chuck Hagel attempting to argue otherwise:

The Senate agreed to give millions of illegal immigrants a shot at U.S. citizenship and backed construction of 370 miles of triple-layered fencing along the Mexican border Wednesday, but prospects for legislation clearing Congress were clouded by a withering attack against President Bush by a prominent House Republican.

"Regardless of what the president says, what he is proposing is amnesty," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. the lawmaker who would lead House negotiators in any attempt to draft a compromise immigration bill later this year.

The blast by Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, came on the day the White House dispatched top presidential aide Karl Rove to ease the concerns of rebellious House Republicans, and also coincided with a clash among GOP senators on the Senate floor.

"This is not amnesty, so let's get the terms right," Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska lectured fellow Republicans who condemned the bill. "Come on. Let's stop the nonsense."

"It sort of reminds me of the famous line, `Methinks thou dost protest too much,'" responded Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who repeatedly described the legislation as an amnesty bill for lawbreakers.

While it's nice to see Republicans bickering, I can't believe Hagel is going to take others to task for using inconvenient terminology. Who cares? The concept of amnesty may be anathema on talk radio - thanks to their echo chamber, it may even have a negative connotation for much of the American public - but the proposal is what it is.

20 years ago, the Reagan Administration took a similar action. Though they did not choose the language, it has become known as Reagan's Amnesty. Deal with it.

Don't get me wrong - I support the opening of a pathway to citizenship. For two decades, we've all but invited illegal immigration by not enforcing our laws and not securing our borders in the name of corporate profits. After all the exploitation and law-breaking to which we've turned a blind eye, it would not only be impractical but unprincipled to break up millions of families and shatter millions of dreams in the manner House Republicans are advocating.

What I can't believe is that Bush and Hagel would really allow themselves to get caught up in a silly linguistics debate. Sure, thanks to right-wing radio, "amnesty" has become a code word for setting-off racist resentment. But, it says a lot about these Republican "leaders" that they would rather play word games than challenge those who have poisoned the public's imagination with such fear-mongering and scape-goating, attributing every ill in American society to the presence of undocumented workers.

Alas, Bush knows how helpful this right-wing echo chamber has been, and Hagel knows how necessary it will be as he considers running for President in 2008. So, rather than exposing the empty rhetoric for what it is, saying "Damn right this proposal contains amnesty and it's the right thing to do", they attempt to draw false distinctions to shelter themselves from criticism.

It's a genuinely sad display. Hagel was right about one thing - they need to stop the nonsense, and he should be the first to take his own advice.

On a related but separate note, in the Wednesday Senate votes reported above, Sen. Ben Nelson was one of only two Democratic Senators to join with 31 Republicans in a failed attempt to strike the supposed amnesty provisions from the bill before the Senate. Though I understand and appreciate Nelson's contention that such provisions will, at present, only prove a road-block to reform, I would be remiss if I didn't express my disappointment at his vote.

I encourage Nelson to continue to speak-out and to hold-out his more limited Border Security plan as a possible compromise, but that hardly justifies bending the entire legislative process to placate the House Republicans who have clearly gone off the deep end on this issue.

At the very least, Nelson should explain his vote and whether it is an outright rejection of any amnesty provision or if it is grounded in reasoning considerably less dogmatic. Admittedly, amnesty is a tough issue politically, but Nelson can't possibly expect to avoid taking a stand on it for the next 5 months just because he thinks now is the wrong time to take action upon it. Eventually, the people are going to want to know where he stands, and they will deserve a real answer - something more than expressing his desire for a bill acceptable to both houses of Congress.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kyle - very insightful commentary. Nelson is looking to November - his vote to repeal the amnesty provisions was in my estimation an attempt to remain consistent on his border security first message. He cant very well support the amnesty provisions and still argue for border security first. I think he's done a better job than Hagel in being consistent. Consider:
Hagel once called the fence idea "goofy" then he voted for a fence.
Hagel wants to reform social security but he voted this week to allow illegal immigrants access to social security benefits - in fact he was the deciding vote this one.

So Nelson is consistant in my book.


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