Word of the Day: Amnesty (again!)

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So a deal was reached today regarding immigration. Surely, this will bring claims of "amnesty" and counterclaims of "no, it's not." This is a very simple question to answer, theoretically: you just look at the definition of the word and see if it applies.

The problem is, of course, people use different definitions for the word. Some people say it means any time when, for a group of people, the government removes the possibility of penalty being applied.

Black's Law Dictionary (first edition, 1891, as well as the second, 1910*) says that amnesty is a "sovereign act of pardon and oblivion for past acts ... ." That is, not just a pardon, which is the act of not producing a penalty, but oblivion. That's what the Greek root of the word amnestia (which also produces our word amnesia) means. To forget, not merely to forgive. Indeed, forgiveness is not even necessary, because it is though the act never happened. Black's continues:

"Amnesty" and "pardon" are very different. The former is an act of the sovereign power, the object of which is to efface and to cause to be forgotten a crime or misdemeanor; the latter is an act of the same authority, which exempts this individual on whom it is bestowed from the punishment the law inflicts for the crime he has committed.
(It may also be worthy of note that the mere fact of being an illegal immigrant is neither a crime nor a misdemeanor, but that's beside the point here, as it still is an offense that carries a penalty.)

According to that traditional definition, then, an act which merely forgives, but still remembers the offense, is not amnesty. As this bill requires a $5,000 fine for being here illegally, in order to remain legally, it is not, according to that definition, amnesty, because there is no oblivion. It is forgiveness, not forgetfulness.

I know, English is pliable, and definitions can change. There is modern evidence that the definition of amnesty has changed somewhat over the years. However, why use the word amnesty at all? If the point is to inform, then why keep shouting "amnesty! amnesty!" which will often end up being misleading, to any of the many Americans who (for good reason) might believe "amnesty" means something different?

If you think they should be deported, just say, you think they should be deported. If you think the fines or penalties should be higher or different, then say that. Saying it is amnesty is at best confusing because your definition is contradictory with many others. Tell me specifically what is wrong with it, and what you would rather the bill do.

As best I see it, there's two viable options. This one, which involves legalizing millions of currently illegal aliens, and the one favored by many others, which would keep everyone just as illegal as they are now, but crack down on both employers who hire them, and deport some of the illegal aliens too.

I come down in the middle. I do not like unfettered immigration -- I think it causes serious social and economic problems when left unchecked, as it has been in the American Southwest for decades -- but I do think we should be allowing a lot more legal aliens into this country to live and work, and that part of the cause of the problem for where we are now is inefficiency in our immigration system and quotas that are way too low.

I don't know what I think about the new bill. But I want whatever opinion I come up with to be based on a careful examination of the facts of the bill, not a characterization based on scarewords.

* I downloaded Black's Law Dictionary editions 1 and 2 via BitTorrent. It's a lame set of JPEGs and HTML pages. But it's free. And it's in the public domain. And the index works. You can't grep it, so it's not much better than a dead tree, but still.



ultima said:

"...but I do think we should be allowing a lot more legal aliens into this country to live and work, and that part of the cause of the problem for where we are now is inefficiency in our immigration system and quotas that are way too low."

I can understand this only to a limited extent. Before we talk about more legal immigrants or aliens, we should ask ourselves:
(1)How many do we really require to meet our labor needs?
(2)Shouldn't that number be based irrefutable evidence presented by prospective employers that they cannot otherwise fill their jobs with citizen workers by offering a living wage?
(3)Shouldn't the total number of all immigrants allowed be tied to the unemployment rate by sector? (If the unemployment rate in a given sector exceeds the benchmark, all immigration is suspended and the removal of illegals is expedited.)
(4)What overall population is optimum and in the national interest?
(5)At what point does population growth begin to negatively impact our standard of living and quality of life?
(6)Isn't the "limit" of finite natural resources per capita as population increases without bounds zero? (The more there are of us the less there is for each of us.)
(7)Shouldn't achievement of a stable population be an important part of the pollution and energy demand equation?

You need to elaborate on why you think we need more legal aliens and why you think the immigration system is inefficient. In my view we have no obligation to accept any more immigrants of any kind other than those necessary to fulfill specific demonstrated needs for labor not otherwise available.

pudge Author Profile Page said:

You need to elaborate ...

No, I don't. :-)

This post was about definitions and I was just giving small insight into where I am coming from on the issue, for context. Don't have time to get into a long discussion about it.

Maybe some other time though. Thanks for reading.

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