Monday, May 21, 2007

What Constitutes "Amnesty"? Or, for That Matter, "Judicial Activism"?

Within the past year or so, two terms have became verboten within the conservative lexicon: "judicial activism" and "amnesty." Both are so facile and, by now, shopworn, they have lost objective meaning and instead serve as mears to hurl at one's opponents.

So, in order to restore semantic sanity to the debates about the role of the judiciary and about immigration reform, let's try to unravel some definitions.

"Judicial activism" occurs when the judiciary overturns a law that enjoys overwhelming public support. Hence the phrase "legislating from the bench."

"Amnesty" is not automatically synonymous with earned citizenship. Instead, the operative question is how long an illegal must wait for legalized status.

If, after paying back taxes, fees and satisfying other conditions (like fluency in English, gainful employment and a clean criminal record), such status is conferred immediately, then that seems like amnesty. If such status must be earned over time, as with the 1986 bill that granted permanent residency after 18 months and citizenship after another five years, then I think invoking the scarlet noun minimizes the hardships associated with waiting.

For those who disagree—like Senator DeMint, who recently proclaimed, "I don't care how you try to spin it, this is amnesty"—I'd ask you to describe a solution, short of deporting all illegals, which is not amnesty?

By all means, I'm no expert on these subjects; this is just my admittedly uninformed opinion. What do you think?

Update (6/16/07): My litmus test for the "amnesty" label are the requirements for legalization. But as Time reporter Nathan Thornburgh observes, the more common test is legalization itself:

Whether you fine illegal aliens or stick them in English classes or make them say a hundred Hail Marys, at the end of the day, illegals would be allowed to stay and become citizens under this bill. That's amnesty.

In other words, anything allowing those who came here illegally to stay here legally constitutes amnesty. To avoid amnesty, illegals must get in the back of the line for legal entry.