Framing the "Path to Citizenship"
It occurred to me yesterday, while listening to a debate between opponents of "amnesty" for illegal immigrants and those who support a "path to citizenship" that this argument is greatly affected by framing.
Framing, according to cognitive linguist turned progressive political consultant George Lakoff, is the construction via language of "a conceptual structure used in thinking." According to Lakoff, if a phrase such as "tax relief" becomes well established, any discussion of the frame - even arguments against it - reinforces the notion that taxes are afflictions that must be relieved. Thus, Lakoff suggests, by arguing against "tax relief", rather than for something like "membership dues", progressives set themselves up to lose the argument.
(Of course, not everyone buys Lakoff's suggestion that framing is so powerful. Psychologist Steven Pinker calls Lakoff's work "a train wreck" in a now-infamous feud begun in The New Republic. The success of Republican pollster turned communications expert Frank Luntz seems to suggest, though, that words really do work in framing political debate.)
President Bush and the Democratic leaders in Congress and the Senate have partially applied the lesson of Words That Work in the current immigration debate. They have replaced the word "amnesty", which evokes so much fear and loathing among populists, nativists, and other Americans, with the phrase "path to citizenship." They seem, however, to have missed the more subtle lessons of framing.
By labeling the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 a "path to citizenship", supporters of the bill frame the debate as one that benefits immigrants. (To be fair, I have found no quotes from Senate Majority Leader and bill sponsor Harry Reid using those words. The White House, on the other hand, says, "The President Opposes An Automatic Path To Citizenship Or Any Other Form Of Amnesty," ignoring Lakoff's warning not to let the other side frame the debate.)
The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 is complicated. Much of the bill deals with strengthening border enforcement by increasing border patrol "personnel and assets", coordinating federal, tribal, state and local law enforcement, sending the National Guard to the US-Mexico border, etc. A contingent bill, S.1225, establishes the controversial "amnesty"/"path to citizenship". As I read section 245B, anyone who has been working in the US illegally since January 2004 can apply to pay a fine, pay fees and back taxes, and then receive a visa and social security number.
Since people who are currently in the US illegally could, after meeting all the law's requirements, become a legal resident, one could perhaps call this "amnesty" in the sense of "a general overlooking or pardon of past offences," Oxford English Dictionary's second sense. (It does not, though, meet OED's first sense, "Forgetfulness, oblivion; an intentional overlooking.")
On the other hand, since it requires adjudication and levies a fine and fees, one could just as honestly call the new requirement "punishment for illegal immigration."
Yes, people would eventually be in the US legally, just as those imprisoned for crimes eventually get out. After completing the process described in S.1225 people currently "not legally present" would become "alien[s] lawful admitted", but only after being punished.
Lou Dobbs, Heritage Foundation, Michelle Malkin, other opponents of the President's bill, Why do you oppose punishment for illegal immigrants?
(P.S. I had intended to blog about the history of the use of the phrase "path to citizenship" in the current immigration debate, but since this post is already getting long, that will have to wait for another day.)