By BEN ZIMMER
Anti-immigration groups protest in front of the U.S. Capitol on April 10, 2013. | Allison Shelley/Getty Images
What killed the latest immigration deal on Capitol Hill? One of the deadliest weapons was a single potent word. When President Donald Trump suggested in January that a compromise might actually be possible and he would be open to considering a path to citizenship for the so-called Dreamers, who came to the U.S. as children, Breitbart immediately slammed him as “Amnesty Don.” Immigration hard-liners in the House of Representatives followed suit, with Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) saying that Americans would reject “amnesty or anything that looks like amnesty.”
Then, when a bipartisan immigration deal was proposed in the Senate, it was Trump’s turn to wield the A-word to bury it. In a tweet, he said the bill would create “a giant amnesty,” echoing a statement from the Department of Homeland Security that it was nothing more than a “mass amnesty bill for illegal aliens of all ages.” The bipartisan bill and a Trump-backed alternative went down to defeat in the Senate, both tarnished by the mere association with the word “amnesty.”
So how did “amnesty”—a word that politicians of both parties once used to invoke generosity and openness—become such a monstrous taboo? Its very invocation has scuttled attempts at immigration reform year after year. Despite its recent weaponization, the usage of the word “amnesty” has actually been rather benign over most of its history. But its more recent shift offers a window into the growing potency of immigration in American politics.
In today’s debate, amnesty has come to carry a sense of getting off scot-free, a kind of unearned forgiveness, but its origins lie in the more benign idea of forgetting. The word originated as “amnestia” in ancient Greek, with the same root as “amnesia.” Even in classical times, this word for not-remembering could also refer more specifically to the pardoning of a crime against the state. The historian Plutarch relates that after the assassination of Julius Caesar, the great Roman statesman Cicero “persuaded the senate to imitate the Athenians and decree an amnesty for the attack upon Caesar.” In English, “amnesty” was borrowed in the 16th century with a similar legal understanding, equated to an “act of oblivion” from the government to forgive someone of past offenses.
“Amnesty” has been present in American politics from the beginning. A search on documents collected by the American Presidency Project, hosted at the University of California, Santa Barbara, finds no less than 346 uses of “amnesty” by presidents from Washington to Trump. The history of the word’s presidential usage offers some insight into how “amnesty” has become so politically fraught.
When George Washington used the word in a 1794 State of the Union address, he spoke of “the proffered terms of amnesty” extended to those in western Pennsylvania who fought against the government in the Whiskey Rebellion. Fifty years later, John Tyler considered a “general amnesty” in a lesser-known uprising, Rhode Island’s Dorr Rebellion.
But it took the Civil War for “amnesty” to become entrenched in American political discourse. Less than a year into the war, in February 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order releasing political prisoners in military custody, granting them “an amnesty for any past offenses of treason or disloyalty,” as long as they upheld the conditions of their parole. In December 1863, Lincoln outlined his plan to offer amnesty to former Confederates at the war’s end, a policy that would be carried out by his successor, Andrew Johnson, as part of Reconstruction.
Presidential amnesties were also granted in the 1890s (by Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland) to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints charged with polygamy—laying the groundwork for Utah becoming a state. And in the early years of the 20th century, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt offered amnesty to rebels in the Philippines who had fought against American troops in the Spanish-American War.
In 1933, a new kind of amnesty was enacted by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his Christmas Amnesty Proclamation, granting clemency to those who had dodged the draft in World War I. Harry Truman followed Roosevelt’s lead in 1946, establishing an “Amnesty Board” to review the cases of conscientious objectors who had refused to serve in World War II. Truman ultimately pardoned only about 1,500 of the 15,000 violators of the Selective Service Act, despite pleas by Eleanor Roosevelt and others for more leniency.
In the U.S. and abroad, “amnesty” continued to be an expression of mercy and compassion for a broad class of people. In 1961, a British lawyer, Peter Benenson, declared an “Appeal for Amnesty” for prisoners of conscience around the world, a campaign that spawned the organization Amnesty International.
It was the cultural clash over the Vietnam War that began to move “amnesty” in a darker direction. Campaigning in 1972, Richard Nixon firmly stated that “when this war is over, there will be no amnesty for draft dodgers or deserters.” His opponent, George McGovern, took a more permissive line, contributing to the “three A’s” that opponents used to attack his campaign: “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion.”
If it was the draft that started “amnesty” on the road to lightning-rod status, it was immigration that landed it there for good. Jimmy Carter, speaking to reporters in 1977, said he thought that the immigration legislation then working its way through Congress would have to include “some element of amnesty.” Ronald Reagan, too, spoke favorably of amnesty in a 1984 debate against Walter Mondale. “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though sometime back they may have entered illegally,” Reagan said, in a statement that would be anathema to many modern-day Republicans.
The tide turned against “amnesty” after Reagan signed the 1986 Immigration and Reform Act, which provided legal status to about 3 million undocumented immigrants who could show that they had resided in the country for more than four years. In retrospect, critics of the “Reagan amnesty” said the measure only encouraged further illegal immigration.
The retrospective blame placed on the 1986 law was largely responsible for a shift in the connotations surrounding “amnesty,” turning it from an expression of forgiveness into something more like an unearned “get out of jail free” card. In 2001, conservative pundit Georgie Anne Geyer sounded an alarm bell in a syndicated column warning George W. Bush against any amnesty plan as part of further reforms to immigration policy. “But what does this word ‘amnesty,’ which sounds so generous, really mean to the United States?” Geyer asked, adding ominously, “In truth, the word spells danger.”
By 2005, the rhetorical battle lines had been drawn. The Los Angeles Daily News reported that proponents of immigration reform, such as California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, were at pains to avoid the word “amnesty” in favor of more anodyne terms like “earned legalization,” “earned transition” and “earned adjustment.” “Why don’t the advocates of illegal immigration use ‘amnesty’?” asked Steven Camarota, research director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “Because the polls tell them people hate it.”
The following year, “amnesty” became the go-to word among immigration hawks opposed to reforms advocated by the Bush administration. A Senate bill that promised “earned citizenship” was met by its opponents with endless repetitions of the nefarious A-word. Jeff Sessions, then serving in the Senate from Alabama, tossed aside any semantic nuances. “In every sense of what people mean by amnesty, it’s amnesty,” Sessions said, observing paradoxically, “If it’s not amnesty, it’s the same thing as amnesty.” His colleague in the House, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), took the logical next step, alluding to literature’s most famous A-word: “Anybody that votes for an amnesty bill deserves to be branded with a scarlet letter, ‘A’ for amnesty, and they need to pay for it at the ballot box in November.”
Pushing back against his own party in a way that would seem unthinkable now, Bush told the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel in 2007: “This word ‘amnesty’ is often used to create confusion and doubt and anger.” He insisted that the immigration policy he championed was not amnesty, but recognized the power of the critique. “If you want to kill a bill,” he said, “then you just go around America saying, ‘This is amnesty.’” It worked. Soon thereafter, Bush’s immigration plan died in the Senate.
More than a decade later, the word “amnesty” remains the “linguistic third rail” in the immigration debate, as Matt Welch, editor-at-large of Reason, argued in the Washington Post last year. Welch has a bold suggestion for that third rail: “it is well past time that we stomped on it,” by embracing the term rather than running away from it. When it comes to codifying some form of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—the rescinded act that allowed “Dreamers” to stay in the country—politicians won’t make headway until they stop being afraid of the word “amnesty.” That would require rehabilitating the term, bringing it back to its compassionate roots. Why not declare amnesty for “amnesty”?