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The truth about Republicans and amnesty

John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been accused of supporting amnesty, but in reality supports comprehensive immigration reform that includes  border security and increased legal immigration.
John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been accused of supporting amnesty, but in reality supports comprehensive immigration reform that includes border security and increased legal immigration.
Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

Whenever the subject of immigration reform comes up, a charge that is certain to be bandied about is that Republicans are trying to foist amnesty on the country. Almost every Republican of note has been accused of supporting amnesty at some point in recent years. Are these charges true? What is the truth about the Republicans and amnesty?

Amnesty doesn't mean what many anti-immigration activists think it does.
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First, what is amnesty? Merriam Webster defines “amnesty” as “a decision that a group of people will not be punished or that a group of prisoners will be allowed to go free” or “the act of an authority (as a government) by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.” Similarly, Merriam Webster defines “pardon” as the “act of officially saying that someone who was judged to be guilty of a crime will be allowed to go free and will not be punished.” Is this what prominent Republicans are advocating?

Perhaps no name is more synonymous with amnesty charges than John McCain. The Arizona senator has long been a proponent of immigration reform. During the George W. Bush Administration, McCain fought for the Bush-backed reform efforts of 2005 and 2007. Opponents accuse McCain of saying that “not granting amnesty” is a “stain on America’s honor” and that it will require “open borders” for Republicans to defeat Hillary in 2016 among other examples.

Both examples cited above from Breitbart include sources for their claims. In the first example, McCain was responding to a question. His unedited answer is as follows (starting at 43:30 on this video):

“I think that the Republican Party will never win another nationwide election unless we enact comprehensive immigration reform. That’s not the reason why I support this reform. I support it because there’s 11 million people living in the shadows in this country without the rights and privileges of citizenry and they’re being abused every day and they can contribute an enormous amount to our society just as the Irish and the Poles and the Jews and the Italians and every other wave that came to this country contributed to it.

“The point is that if you’ve got 11 million people living in this country illegally, there’s not enough buses to deport them, then it’s de facto amnesty…. You know, they’re not going home, okay? They’re not going home. And so why don’t we give them a path to citizenship, and my friends, if you look at that legislation, it is tough. It’s 10 years before they get a green card, thousands of dollars in fees. This is no amnesty. It’s really tough. But if you keep these people in the shadows in this nation, it is a stain on America’s honor. By the way, I am insistent on one thing and that is, when we pass it, and I still think we will one of these days, it will be named the Edward M. Kennedy Immigration Reform Bill.”

In his own words, McCain points out that the illegal aliens are not being pardoned, that they will instead pay thousands of dollars in fines and endure a 10 year waiting period. In the other example from Breitbart, it doesn’t even take a trip to the source link to determine that McCain never uttered the words “open borders,” but had again merely advocated immigration reform. The authors of the two pieces took it upon themselves to put words into McCain’s mouth, substituting the phrases “amnesty” and “open borders” for the more accurate phrase that McCain had actually used: “immigration reform.”

What is John McCain’s position on immigration reform? According to On the Issues, McCain has advocated securing the border first and then implementing a guest worker program. He supported Arizona’s immigration law in 2010. As noted earlier, he supports a path to citizenship, but not amnesty. McCain has voted to make English the official language of the U.S., to build a border fence, and against a bill requiring health care for illegal aliens.

Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is another frequent target of immigration reform opponents. He is often derided by his critics as “Lindsey Grahamnesty.” When it comes to backing up the charges that Graham is an amnesty supporter, again the evidence seems to fall short.

For example, a 2013 Breitbart article says that Graham said that “amnesty” was the only way to prevent a “demographic death spiral.” A closer look at the article, however, reveals that Graham ‘s words addressed immigration reform, not amnesty. Graham’s opinion has merit. While Republicans do very well among white voters, the share of white voters in the electorate has declined markedly. In the Obama era, Republicans have had a notoriously poor performance among minority voters and this has cost them elections. Examiner’s analysis of 2012 exit polls found that immigration was one of the most damaging issues for Republicans and may have cost Mitt Romney the election.

Marco Rubio, Florida senator and former darling of the Tea Party movement, is now often derided as a RINO and amnesty supporter. The break seems to have occurred in January 2013 when Rubio proposed an immigration reform plan that fell short of deportation for all illegal immigrants. Examiner noted at the time that Rubio’s plan called for securing the border as well as increasing legal immigration.

Rubio would have dealt with illegal aliens by encouraging them to come forward and undergo background checks. Illegals with serious criminal histories would be deported. Those with clean background checks would pay fines, back taxes, do community service work and be subjected to a long waiting period before they would be eligible for citizenship.

Another frequent target of the anti-amnesty crowd is Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman and Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee. Any linkage of Ryan to amnesty seems very tenuous. A January 2014 article on Twitchy claimed that Ryan “wants amnesty first, border security second. “ This claim is sourced to a Washington Post article that details a Ryan interview on MSNBC.

In the interview, Ryan says that under a House Republican plan for immigration, current illegals would be granted “probationary status to make sure that a person is not rewarded for having broken our laws and not preferenced over people who did follow the laws, meaning legal immigrants.” When asked if citizenship is on the table, Ryan replies, “What I’m saying is that you’ve got to make sure this isn’t amnesty.” Ryan goes on to say that “we feel very strongly about securing the border” and how Republican distrust of Obama means that “we need to write a law that he can’t avoid.”

More generally, a 2013 article by Rich Lowry in National Review asks, “Does the Republican establishment support amnesty?” Lowry promptly answers “you bet” and cites this article in Time. What Lowry neglects to mention is that the Republican National Committee resolution discussed in the article specifically rejects a pathway to citizenship while calling for increased border security and law enforcement patrols. The resolution called for work permits for current illegal aliens, but no citizenship and no amnesty

Once again, it is apparent that the anti-immigration reform activists are taking words out of context and twisting the meaning to tar Republican representatives with the amnesty brush. Anti-reform crusaders might not believe that bills under consideration are harsh enough on illegal immigrants, but, by definition, they are not amnesty because they would force illegal aliens to pay fines and undergo background checks and waiting periods. As Ryan noted, Republican proposals also include a probationary period for illegal aliens who choose to come forward.

Republicans and Tea Party supports would do well to note the facts about Republicans accused of amnesty and question why those who fraudulently throw out the charge of amnesty feel the need to twist the facts and lie about their fellow conservatives. Politicians, talk show hosts and news outlets that sow such division should be remembered and avoided.

If you disagree and would like to provide specific evidence about Republican support for amnesty, contact me on Facebook or Twitter