What Do Republicans Mean When They Say Amnesty?

Hint: They don’t really know.

Sen. Johnny Isakson speaks with members of the media on Nov. 4, 2014, in Atlanta
Sen. Johnny Isakson speaks with members of the media on Nov. 4, 2014, in Atlanta. Just don’t ask him what he means by “amnesty.”

Photo by Jason Getz/Getty Images

If there is one issue that will creep into everything that happens on Capitol Hill right now, it is immigration. Whether you’re interested in spending, national security, the next attorney general, or the 2016 presidential contest, immigration will be deeply involved. And where there’s talk of immigration, there’s talk of amnesty. When Republicans use that term—and, for the most part, only Republicans use it—the word is typically shorthand for “bad immigration policy.” Asking if a Republican supports amnesty is akin to asking if someone is beating his or her spouse; it’s a loaded term, and the correct answer is always no. For conservatives, amnesty is bad. Nobody likes amnesty.

But there’s a hitch: Some of the top legislators who frequently use the term can’t actually explain what amnesty is. I spent the past few days asking Republican senators what they meant when they referred to amnesty in terms of immigration policy. The answers I got were intriguing. That’s because while Republican congressional leaders are always eager to discuss their opposition to this vague, amorphous concept, many of them are downright befuddled when asked to explain what that concept looks like in real life. Their responses ranged from straightforward to nonsensical.

When I asked Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, what specific immigration policies he was referring to when he used the term amnesty, he said, “I don’t understand the question.”

“Amnesty is a forgiveness by definition,” he said, “and there are many different types of that so I’m not gonna get into trying to define it, what other people might think. If you look in the dictionary, it’s forgiveness, you can take it for that.”

The dictionary definition of amnesty is not particularly illuminating when it comes to Republicans’ immigration stances.

Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said this: “Amnesty to me is totally forgiving or granting a pardon to people who’ve broken the law.”

No word on whether giving work permits is the same as giving a pardon.

I then asked Arkansas’ Sen. John Boozman what he meant when he used the A-word.

“It’s behavior that you don’t want to reward,” he said. “And so if somebody enters the country illegally and then is given the ability to move to the front of the line, as opposed to somebody who goes through the normal process, then I would call that amnesty.”

“It would be a pathway to citizenship,” he said.

According to that definition, the president’s executive action on immigration is not amnesty.

“The sticking point would be in the details,” Boozman added. “That might require whatever.”


Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts took a strong stance against the president’s pending executive action during his tough re-election campaign. And in a statement to Breitbart news last week, he said, “The president’s attempts to grant amnesty through executive order will be the first battleground where this new majority can stand up to this president and block his actions.”

That statement would suggest that the president’s immigration action—we don’t have all the details on that yet—is definitely amnesty. When asked on Monday night what specific policy changes would constitute amnesty, Roberts said, “I don’t know what’s in the president’s program yet, I’ll have to take a look.”

When I asked Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer if deferring deportations of undocumented immigrants—the anticipated central plank of the president’s executive action—counts as amnesty, she said, “I don’t know!” and laughed.

And Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt took a lengthy pause before answering.

“I think the term means anything that waives part of the current law and lets people stay,” he said.

But he added that immigration reform should be piecemeal and that crafting policy to deal with undocumented immigrants currently living here would be easier if the border was secure. So would that mean that granting work permits would be amnesty if we did it now, but wouldn’t be if we did it after securing the border?

“I think trying to talk about specific definitions that happen in a framework where nothing is working to conclusion is just not a very good way to spend time,” he said.

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake has a simpler position: He doesn’t use the term.

“It’s kind of a fungible definition,” he said. “Some people say anything short of deportation, and others if they pay back taxes or they pay a fine, or a waiting period, then it’s not. My definition of amnesty is an unconditional pardon for a breach of law, and really, nothing that’s been proposed by anybody qualifies for that.”

But while U.S. senators may not be able to give a cogent explanation of the meaning of a word they use all the time, groups that are hawkish on immigration and the conservative media members sympathetic to them have worked overtime to get Republicans on the record opposing amnesty in the broadest possible definition of the word.

The best example of this comes from the Federation for American Immigration Reform. The group has substantial clout in the conservative circles—radio host Mark Levin called it “near and dear to my heart,” and Laura Ingraham invokes it often—that most staunchly oppose higher levels of legal immigration and legal status for undocumented immigrants. And though the organization isn’t technically partisan, its major affiliations are all with leaders and politicians on the right. Over the course of the 2014 primary season, the FAIR Congressional Task Force debuted a three-question candidate survey asking whether candidates would support or oppose legislation granting work authorization for undocumented immigrants, increasing the number of immigrants legally allowed to immigrate to the United States each year, and increasing the number of guest workers admitted annually.

Mississippi Senate candidate Chris McDaniel was among the first to fill out the questionnaire, and he answered in the negative to each question. He then proceeded to call for Sen. Thad Cochran to be “courageous enough” to sign the questionnaire, per Breitbart. Cochran didn’t sign it—no surprise—and influential conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham cited that when she endorsed McDaniel.

A few other prominent Republican primary contenders also got on board. Dave Brat, who defeated former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in one of the most astounding upsets in recent memory, took the questionnaire (answering no to all three questions) and made immigration one of the main issues in that Virginia primary. And Georgia Sen.-elect David Perdue also went on the record during his primary answering no to the questionnaire’s three hypotheticals.

Here’s why this matters: For conservative immigration hawks, amnesty equals opposition to any sort of legal status for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. And it’s a definition that’s enforced in part by an organization that opposes any hike in legal immigration levels. Amnesty, in the FAIR questionnaire’s vernacular, means granting “any form of work authorization to illegal aliens.”

Iowa Rep. Steve King, California Rep. Tom McClintock, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, Georgia Rep.-elect Barry Loudermilk, and North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones have all committed to opposing any legislation that increases legal immigration.

The bottom line is that immigration hard-liners—for lack of a more precise term—are very clear about what they mean when they talk about amnesty. But plenty of non-hard-liners use the term too, and many of those don’t really know what they mean by it. Others, according to their own definitions of the term, don’t think it’s fair to characterize the president’s anticipated move as amnesty. Keep that in mind as debate over immigration policy unfolds over the coming weeks. Or don’t—since many of the people talking will have no idea what they are talking about.