TIME Immigration

President Obama Distorts ‘Amnesty’ to Sell His Executive Actions

U.S. President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about immigration reform during a visit to Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nevada
President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about immigration reform during a visit to Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nov. 21, 2014. Kevin Lamarque—Reuters

When Presidents abuse words, the nation should notice

President Obama has rolled out his executive action on immigration with a talking point that guts the meaning of a word for political ends. As a general rule, democracies should take notice when their leaders do this.

“I know critics call this ‘amnesty,’” he said today in a speech in Nevada, describing his decision to give temporary legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants. “It’s not amnesty. Amnesty is what we have now.”

The Merriam Webster dictionary, an American English standard, gives us this definition of “amnesty”: “the act of an authority (as a government) by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.” The Oxford dictionary gives two definitions: “an official pardon for people who have been convicted of political offenses” and “an undertaking by the authorities to take no action against specified offenses or offenders during a fixed period.” The word “pardon” in both cases is defined to mean a forgiveness for an offense.

As a word in politics, “amnesty” has been as contested as any in recent years. What is not contested is the fact that those immigrants who reside in the United States without documentation have broken the law, even if that law is not widely enforced. In Arizona v. United States, the recent Supreme Court case that overturned a harsh state immigration law, Justice Anthony Kennedy summed up current federal law like this: “Unlawful entry and unlawful reentry into the country are federal offenses. Once here, aliens are required to register with the Federal Government and to carry proof of status on their person. Failure to do so is a federal misdemeanor.” The punishment can include a small fine, possible imprisonment and, “upon the order of the Attorney General,” removal from the country.

Opponents of comprehensive immigration reform label any effort “amnesty” if it treats undocumented immigrants with any official leniency short of prompt punishment under current law and deportation. For the pro-immigration reform camp, a reform proposal is only “amnesty” if it fails to include some penalty, even a different one than those prescribed, for having initially broken the law. This camp argues that the Senate-passed immigration reform proposal, for instance, was not “amnesty,” since it required immigrants to pay a fine before establishing a legal path for them to stay in the country.

President Obama is doing something more convoluted and alarming with the word “amnesty” than both of these camps. His action grants temporary and revokable work permits and legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States, if they pay back taxes and pass a background check. There is no fine. He is taking these actions under current law, using the discretion given to the Attorney General over enforcement. He argues that this is not “amnesty,” even though he is granting clear temporary forgiveness, since there is no official pardon, just a mass delay of enforcement.

But Obama goes further. “Amnesty is what we have now,” he says of the current system, in which millions live in violation of a law that is generally not enforced. The suggestion here is that the current lack of enforcement is itself a sort of unofficial pardon. So he is arguing at the same time that granting a new pardon is not amnesty and that allowing an existing pardon to continue is amnesty. He can’t have it both ways.

These two conflicting thoughts become harder to manage when the pardons are compared to each other. The White House says that the core rationale for the President’s actions is “humanitarian,” since the new rules will make it easier for families with undocumented parents and documented children to stay with each other. Implicit in this is the conceit that the new pardon (a temporary work permit and legal status) is less severe than the old pardon (a lack of enforcement).

Those undocumented immigrants who do not receive the President’s dispensation will be undeniably worse off: they will continue to live under the threat of deportation, they will be restricted in their ability to travel outside the United States, and they will continue to lack the ability, in most cases, to find legal employment. President Obama is not arguing otherwise. The premise of his action is that he is making the lives of 5 million better and more fair.

In the end, Obama has made a mush of meaning. Why does this matter? Because words matter. They mean specific things. And that meaning must be defended, because words facilitate the basic premise of open and honest debate that undergirds a democratic system. As George Orwell wrote, in the definitive essay on this topic, “[I]f thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” War is not peace. The sun is not blue. Six is not less than five.

There are lots of ways Obama could have chosen to make his case that his executive actions provide the nation an improvement over the status quo. Corrupting the meaning of a word, however, is not a noble one, nor is confusing the debate. It is, to use another word with a clear meaning, deceptive.

TIME Immigration

Obama Touts Immigration Actions in Las Vegas

Raucuous crowd in Las Vegas cheers "Si, se puede"

President Barack Obama took his immigration actions on the road Friday, trumpeting in a speech in Las Vegas his announcement that his administration would defer deportations for roughly five million illegal immigrants.

Addressing a raucous audience at a local high school a day after laying out his announcement in a primetime address to the nation, Obama rejected the complaints of congressional Republicans that his actions were unlawful or an overreach, saying he had given Congress plenty of time to take action and “we can’t afford” to wait any longer.

“I told [Speaker of the House] John Boehner I would—yeah, I’ll wash your car, I’ll walk your dog—whatever you need to do, just call the bill,” Obama said, complaining that House Republicans refused to take up the Senate-passed bipartisan immigration reform bill. “That’s how democracy is supposed to work. And if the votes hadn’t been there, then we would have had to start over, but at least give it a shot. And he didn’t do it. And the fact that a year-and-a-half has gone by means that time has been wasted—and during that time families have been separated, and during that time businesses have been harmed.”

Obama said lawmakers who question his authority to act have a simple recourse: passing a comprehensive immigration bill for his signature. “When members of Congress question my authority to make our immigration system work better, I have a simple answer: pass a bill,” Obama said as the audience cheered and chanted “Si, se puede.” “Pass a bill. Pass a bill. Nobody is stopping them from passing a bill.”

Before deplaning Air Force One, Obama signed two memoranda to develop policies to better help integrate immigrants into the United States and improve the immigration visa system. Separately, the Department of Homeland Security released memoranda on efforts to improve border security, end the controversial “Secure Communities” program and employ prosecutorial discretion to allowing many illegal immigrants to remain in the United States. “Under this revised policy, those who entered illegally prior to January 1, 2014, who never disobeyed a prior order of removal, and were never convicted of a serious offense, will not be priorities for removal,” the department said of a policy that will take effect on Jan. 5, 2015. DHS also announced that it would begin accepting applications within the next 180 day for the expanded deferred action program, which would allow millions of immigrants to remain in the U.S. legally for three years on a renewable basis.

Obama said he understood the worries of those concerned about the impact of immigration on their jobs and the “fabric of our country,” but said he also heard the concerns of the so-called Dreamers who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and of the American citizens with family members who immigrated illegally to be near them.

“We’re not a nation that kicks out strivers and dreamers who want to earn their piece of the American dream,” Obama said. “We’re a nation that finds a way to welcome them. We make them earn it, but we welcome them in as fellow human beings, fellow children of God, and we harness their talents to make the future brighter for everybody.”

The executive actions put pressure on Republicans who have strenuously objected to Obama’s process, while the substance of his announcements places the GOP in a bind with an ever-more-diverse presidential electorate.

TIME Immigration

Obama’s Actions Won’t Increase Illegal Immigration, Expert Says

Barack Obama Immigration
President Barack Obama signs two presidential memoranda associated with his actions on immigration in his office, on Air Force One as he arrives at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nov. 21, 2014. Carolyn Kaster—AP

House Speaker John Boehner is arguing that President Obama’s moves to defer deportations for up to five million undocumented immigrants will make illegal immigration worse, citing President Obama’s own past words to make the argument.

But a top immigration expert disagreed, arguing that the causes of illegal immigration are more complex.

Obama announced Thursday that he would allow millions of undocumented immigrant parents of U.S. citizen and legal permanent resident children who have been living in the country for at least five years to avoid deportation for three years if they pay back taxes and pass a criminal background check.

Boehner said that will only encourage more people to try to cross the border. His office pointed to a 2010 Obama statement in which the President said that providing undocumented workers legal status “could lead to a surge in more illegal immigration.”

“The action by the President yesterday will only encourage more people to come here illegally and put their lives at risk,” said Boehner. “We saw the humanitarian crisis on our border last summer—how horrific it was. Well next summer, it could be worse.”

Boehner was referring to a surge in unaccompanied minors from October 2013 through September, when over 68,000 unaccompanied minors crossed the southwest border, a 77% increase over the previous year. (The number of children coming over has sharply declined in the past few months.)

But Doris Meissner, the director of the Migration Policy Institute’s immigration policy work, said that Boehner’s criticism was off. Here’s what she told TIME:

It goes to the more general idea of whether a legal status program functions as a magnet to future illegal immigration and that’s always something that’s been out there and has been a concern, but the reality today is that we have invested so much in southwest border enforcement…and the President has underscored that again that he is going to allocate even more additional resources to border enforcement. The evidence that we have is that our illegal immigration across the southwest border is at it’s lowest level since the early 1970s when the current wave of illegal immigration largely from Mexico began, we have net minus immigration from Mexico.

The child migrant spurt that happened over the last year was much more a function of conditions in those three countries—Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—and notion of ‘permisos’ in the United States. But that’s now really receded dramatically. So if you take the spurt of Central American crossings out of the numbers for last year, you find the lowest levels of illegal immigration apprehensions across the southwest border in decades. Now that’s not to say that you can discount Central American migration but…it’s a function of different circumstances then the illegal immigration that has led to what the President is saying now.

This action that he has taken now is retrospective. You have to have been in the country for five years to qualify for it. It’s for people as of the date of announcement; there’s no eligibility for people that might be coming forward in the future. I do think that the underpinnings today are quite different and it’s pretty hard to make the case that this particular action would spur a future migration.

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: From Obama’s Immigration Move to a Legendary Director’s Passing

Watch today's Know Right Now to catch up on the latest trending stories

In today’s trending stories, President Obama took executive action on Thursday to impose sweeping immigration reforms. His GOP critics say the plan is equivalent to amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

All 50 states saw below freezing temperatures this week, while Buffalo, New York, was buried beneath 85 inches of “Lake Effect” snow.

The world’s biggest chocolate makers said the planet is facing a shortage of the product, due to dry weather in West Africa, fungal disease, and China’s growing appetite for it.

And lastly, film director Mike Nichols died this week at 83 years old. He is one of a handful of people who has won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards.

TIME Immigration

Obama Will Pressure GOP to ‘Finish the Job’ on Immigration

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama announces executive actions on immigration during a nationally televised address from the White House in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014. Jim Bourg—AP

President feels 'liberated' now that midterms are over

President Barack Obama will use his executive action on immigration to pressure Republicans to “finish the job” by passing a reform bill, White House Senior Advisor Dan Pfeiffer said Friday.

At a Christian Science Monitor breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, Pfeiffer was asked if Obama would tout his action in swing states to put pressure on Republicans.

Pfeiffer didn’t answer directly, but he did say the administration “will be making the case about what we did and the need for Congress to finish the job.”

He added that this would be an “incredibly important priority” in 2015.

The remarks came two weeks after Democrats were routed in the midterms, losing control of the Senate. But Pfeiffer said that in contrast to an election season where Obama needed to protect Democratic candidates and “wasn’t able to be out there and make an argument,” he will now be freer to flaunt his plan, which grants temporary legal status and work permits to almost five million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Though advisers have suggested that Obama feels “liberated” now that midterms are over, Pfeiffer says he’s already looking ahead and planning for to 2016. “A very important thing for him will be to be succeeded by a Democrat,” Pfeiffer said.

TIME

The Best Pictures of the Week: Nov. 14 – Nov. 21

From a dramatic snowstorm in Buffalo, N.Y. and the slaying of worshipers in a Jerusalem synagogue to Obama’s immigration plan and the murder of Honduras’ beauty queen, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

TIME Immigration

Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio Sues Obama Over Immigration Plan

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaking with the media in Phoenix on Jan. 9, 2013.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaking with the media in Phoenix on Jan. 9, 2013. Ross D. Franklin—AP

The Arizona sheriff has been investigated by the Justice Dept for alleged abuses of power

Joe Arpaio, the Sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., and a vocal foe of illegal immigration, announced Thursday he has filed suit against President Barack Obama over his announced plan to use his executive authority to offer legal status to roughly five million illegal immigrants in the United States.

“This unconstitutional act by the President will have a serious detrimental impact on my caring out the duties and responsibilities for which I am encharged as Sheriff,” Arpaio says in his formal complaint. “Specifically, it will severely strain our resources, both in manpower and financially, necessary to protect the citizens I was elected to serve. For instance, among the many negative affects of this executive order, will be the increased release of criminal aliens back onto streets of Maricopa County, Arizona, and the rest of the nation.”

In an address to the nation Thursday, Obama announced executive action to give roughly five million immigrants currently in the U.S. illegally—primarily the parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents—the option to register with authorities and receive protection from deportation and work permits.

Arpaio gained national attention in recent years due to his aggressive—and some say illegal—crackdown on illegal immigration in Arizona, one of the states most heavily burdened by the influx of undocumented people into the U.S. from across the border with Mexico.

A years-long investigation by the Department of Justice ended without charges due to insufficient evidence to surmount the burden of proof, but records obtained by the Arizona Republic reveal that FBI agents reported finding probable cause to recommend felony charges for obstructing criminal investigations, theft by threat, tampering with witnesses, perjury and extortion.

House Republicans also announced plans on Friday to sue the President over his unilateral actions — but on the healthcare reform law, not the newly-announced immigration plan.

TIME Opinion

Is Obama Overreaching on Immigration? Lincoln and FDR Would Say ‘No’

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama announces executive actions on immigration during a nationally televised address from the White House in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 20, 2014 Jim Bourg—AP

Like Lincoln and Roosevelt before him, Obama occupies the White House in a time of great crisis

Last night, President Obama announced new steps that will allow about five million undocumented immigrants to obtain work permits and feel free of imminent deportation. Given that we now have an estimated 10–11 million such people within our nation and that many of them clearly will never leave, this seems a reasonable first step towards giving them all some kind of legal status. But, because of the anti-immigration stance of the Republican Party, which will entirely control Congress starting on Jan. 3, the President will have to base this step solely on executive power. And even before the President spoke, various Republicans had accused him of acting like an emperor or a monarch and warning of anarchy and violence if he goes through with his plans.

There are, in fact, substantial legal and historical precedents, including a recent Supreme Court decision, that suggest that Obama’s planned actions would be neither unprecedented nor illegal. This is of course the President’s own position, that no extraordinary explanation is needed—yet we can also put his plans in the broader context of emergency presidential powers, which in fact have a rich history in times of crisis in the United States. It is not accidental that this issue of Presidential power is arising now, because it will inevitably arise—as the founders anticipated—any time a crisis has made it unusually difficult to govern the United States. Like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, Obama occupies the White House in a time of great crisis, and therefore finds it necessary to take controversial steps.

The Founding Fathers distrusted executive authority, of course, because they had fought a revolution in the previous decade against the arbitrary authority of King George III. But, on the other hand, they had come to Philadelphia in 1787 because their current government, the early version of the U.S. system established by the Articles of Confederation, was so weak that the new nation was sinking into anarchy. So they created a strong executive and a much more powerful central government than the Articles of Confederation had allowed for—and having lived through a revolution, they also understood that governments simply had to exercise exceptional powers in times of emergency.

They made one explicit reference to an emergency power, authorizing the federal government to suspend the right of habeas corpus—freedom from arbitrary arrest—”in cases of rebellion or invasion [when] the public safety may require it.” Nearly 80 years later, when the southern states had denied the authority of the federal government, Abraham Lincoln used this provision to lock up southern sympathizers in the North, and eventually secured the assent of Congress to this measure. He also used traditional powers of a government at war—including the confiscation of enemy property—to emancipate the slaves within the Confederacy in late 1862. With the help of these measures, the North won the war and the Union survived—apparently exactly what the Founders had intended.

When Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office in the midst of a virtual economic collapse in March of 1933, he not only declared that the nation had “nothing to fear but fear itself,” but also made clear that he would take emergency measures on his own if Congress did not go along. That spring, the country was treated to a remarkable movie, Gabriel Over the White House, in which the President did exactly that—but as it turned out, the Congress was more than happy to go along with Roosevelt’s initial measures. It wasn’t until his second term that Congress turned against him; he, like Obama, used executive authority to find new means of fighting the Depression. In wartime he also claimed and exercised new emergency powers in several ways, including interning Japanese-Americans, this time without a formal suspension of habeas corpus. In retrospect both a majority of Americans and the courts have decided that some of these measures, especially the internment, were unjust and excessive, but the mass of the people accepted them in the midst of a great war as necessary to save the country, preferring to make amends later on. Though opponents continually characterized both Lincoln and FDR as monarchs and dictators trampling on the Constitution, those are judgments which history, for the most part, has not endorsed.

As the late William Strauss and Neil Howe first pointed out about 20 years ago in their remarkable books, Generations and The Fourth Turning, these first three great crises in our national life—the Revolutionary and Constitutional period, the Civil War, and the Depression and the Second World War—came at regular intervals of about 80 years. Sure enough, just as they had predicted, the fourth such great crisis came along in 2001 as a result of 9/11. President Bush immediately secured from Congress the sweeping authority to wage war almost anywhere, and claimed emergency powers to detain suspected terrorists at Guantanamo. (Some of those powers the Supreme Court eventually refused to recognize.) The war against terror was, however, only one aspect of this crisis. The other is the splintering of the nation, once again, into two camps with largely irreconcilable world views, a split that has paralyzed our government to an extent literally never before seen for such a long period. Immigration is only one of several problems—including climate change, inequality and employment—that the government has not been able to address by traditional means because the Republican Party has refused to accept anything President Obama wants to do.

The Founders evidently understood that when the survival of the state is threatened, emergency measures are called for. We are not yet so threatened as we were in the three earlier crises, but our government is effectively paralyzed. Under the circumstances it seems to me that the President has both a right and a duty to use whatever authority he can find to solve pressing national problems. Congressional obstructionism does not relieve him of his own responsibilities to the electorate.

David Kaiser, a historian, has taught at Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Williams College, and the Naval War College. He is the author of seven books, including, most recently, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War. He lives in Watertown, Mass.

TIME Immigration

Boehner: Immigration Action Damages The Presidency

Speaker promised the House will respond

House Speaker John Boehner said President Barack Obama is “damaging the presidency itself” by unilaterally providing temporary legal status and work permits to millions of immigrants who are living in the country illegally.

“With this action he has refused to listen to the American people,” said Boehner in a press conference Friday. “The President has taken actions that he himself has said are those of a king or an emperor, not an American president.”

Boehner did not lay out a specific response to counter the President’s executive action, the largest American immigration move in decades, but promised that “the House will in fact act.”

Republicans are considering everything from using the power of the purse to a lawsuit in response. The latter move may prove unsuccessful, as some of the most high-profile American legal scholars, including Harvard’s Laurence Tribe, have said that the action was within the President’s lawful authority.

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