“We’re not looking at citizenship. We’re not looking at amnesty,” President Donald Trump said Thursday, as he batted back reports that he’d struck a deal with Democrats on undocumented immigrants. “We’re looking at allowing people to stay here.”
The problem? Allowing people who came to the U.S. without papers to stay is precisely what many conservatives commonly mean when they say “amnesty.”
But it’s unclear how, exactly, this White House defines “amnesty” – though it was very clear that Trump wanted to get away from the A-word as quickly as possible.
The president was quickly labeled “Amnesty Don” by Breitbart News—headed by his former chief strategist Steve Bannon—amid reports about a deal with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to preserve legal status for young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, widely known as Dreamers.
On Thursday morning, Trump tweeted that “No deal was made,” but suggested Dreamers should not be deported.
White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters reiterated hours later that no deal had been struck – but added that “what the Trump administration will discuss is a responsible path forward in immigration reform that could include legal citizenship over a period of time, but absolutely by no means will this White House discuss amnesty.”
Walters declined when pressed by reporters to offer her own definition, and press secretary Sarah Sanders did not respond to a request for comment.
Some conservatives use the word as a synonym for a path to citizenship, while others equate it with anything that allows those who came here illegally to obtain legal status.
“In the context of immigration, amnesty is commonly defined as granting legal status to a group of individuals unlawfully present in a country,” wrote Matthew Spalding, a conservative writer in a 2007 memorandum for the Heritage Foundation. Under this definition, Trump’s desire for “allowing people to stay here” would seem to qualify as amnesty.
“Strictly speaking, in the context of illegal immigration amnesty would mean an illegal alien is permitted to get right with the law – i.e., return to his home country – without additional penalties, such as criminal prosecution or re-entry bars,” wrote Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, in a statement to POLITICO.
“If the illegal immigrant gets to stay here – thus keep that what he stole, i.e., residence in the U.S. – it’s actually *more* than amnesty,” Krikorian added. “So any proposal that allows an illegal immigrant to remain legally is really ‘amnesty-plus,’ but for the sake of economy in language, we just call it all amnesty, and so does everyone in the world.”
Krikorian said he supports allowing undocumented immigrants who hold status under President Barack Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, to remain in the U.S.—but said it would still count as “amnesty.”
And, he added: “Whenever a politician says his proposal isn’t amnesty, it’s an amnesty.”
But the term’s cloudy definition proved a useful cudgel for conservatives to attack Trump over the suggestion of any path to legal status for any undocumented immigrants.
“Reagan led with Amnesty, 1986. Bush43 led with Amnesty ‘06, Obama led with Amnesty ‘13. All failed so…Trump leads with DACA Amnesty 2017,” conservative Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) fumed on Twitter.
The 2016 GOP platform stated opposition to “any form of amnesty for those who, by breaking the law, have disadvantaged those who have obeyed it.” The platform did not define the term, but did call on a Republican president to “immediately rescind” Obama’s executive actions on illegal immigration.
Trump himself seems in the past to have accepted protection from deportation, rather than full citizenship, to count as “amnesty.”
Trump, like many Republicans, frequently referred to Obama’s executive actions as “executive amnesty.” And he regularly assailed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for supporting legislation that included a path to citizenship (the bill passed the Senate but was never brought up for a vote in the House). Before “Little Marco,” Trump had a habit of calling Rubio “Marco Amnesty Rubio.”
Any deal would likely also increase funding for border security, and potentially for Trump’s proposed southern border wall. Trump has indicated in the past that even “amnesty” could be acceptable in exchange for tougher border measures.
In 2013, Trump wrote on Twitter: “Congress must protect our borders first. Amnesty should be done only if the border is secure and illegal immigration has stopped.”
For many conservatives, even granting legal status – through legislation or otherwise – to the Dreamers would represent a form of amnesty. And Trump has indicated he fully supports legislation that would do just that.
“Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really!” Trump wrote on Twitter Thursday. “They have been in our country for many years through no fault of their own – brought in by parents at young age. Plus BIG border security.”
Just don’t call it “amnesty.”