Deconstructing the Rhetorical Spin on Amnesty

Our political betters in both the Republican and Democrat establishments have been pitching the notion that we need to accept amnesty for illegal aliens. These people have broken our federal laws in efforts to live and work within our borders, while extracting the value that we taxpayers provide in the form of education and healthcare.

Only they’ve constantly and purposefully crafted the verbiage of the pitch.

You’ve probably noticed that they’re not out there trumpeting that we grant “amnesty for illegal aliens.”“Amnesty,” by definition, means a “pardon.” So in the context of this issue, it means a blanket pardon to the willful and unapologetic violators of American federal law, i.e., criminals. How about “path to citizenship?”  Better, but the implications of criminality are still there, and many Americans won’t even begin to entertain that notion unless the border is firmly secured as an absolute prerequisite. And that simply won’t do for the Washington elite. But what about “immigration reform?”

Bingo! It’s just broad enough that the political elite can keep the focus on a more holistic moral imperative without requiring that masses of Americans to actually think it through. After all, the government just passed a monstrous bill which lawmakers did not read, granting federal oversight of our entire healthcare delivery system, from doctors to patients to the insurers in between, while referring to that endeavor as “healthcare reform.” 

There was still that problem with the word “illegal,” though. “Illegal” sends the wrong message, because all these poor souls are really trying to do is attain a better life by willfully circumventing extensive border security measures to take advantage of books, teachers, doctors, and government infrastructure that other people (and by other people, I mean you) pay for. “Undocumented” is much more pleasing to the ear. It suggests that they’re not “illegal” or “illegitimately” getting all of that, they’re just world citizens unfortunate enough to be in an identity-limbo. If they can only become “documented,” they’ll be legitimate recipients of those things.

And just this week, we found that “alien” is being struck from the lexicon of border security personnel, but there’s been an effort to strike the term from Americans’ consciousness for a long time now.  The driving argument has seemed to be, “They’re human beings, not aliens!” The fact that this argument is made so prevalently about how the word “dehumanizes” illegal immigrants, and that it’s parroted by so many, may be more disheartening than our falling for all the calculated rhetorical mirages. It requires that Americans be capable of only one interpretation of the noun, something more akin to the Ridley Scott application, I guess, and that they never think beyond that one mental cue. But the more plausible reason that “alien” is being banned from public discussion on the matter is that the word implies something or someone that doesn’t belong. And it’s not as if these people are illegally here and don’t belong, after all -- they’re just undocumented at this point. They’re just here to work, and that’s a good thing because we want people to work-- to do the jobs America’s unskilled laborers won’t do, and so forth. So in the end, the focus is on them being just broadly “human workers,” not the description which would more accurately describe them in the context of this issue, “illegal aliens.” 

Thus, “amnesty for illegal aliens” has become “immigration reform to help undocumented migrant workers.” It is a much nicer sounding package which may be a little more broadly acceptable, sure. And it may even be a catalyst driving millions of the dim and aloof to passionately support the cause. But that doesn’t change the fact that, in terms of public policy, both descriptions represent the exact same thing.

William Sullivan blogs at: and can be followed on Twitter.

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