Right-Wing Radio Renew False Cries Of "Amnesty" To Attack Immigration Bill

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Right-wing radio talk hosts are attacking the comprehensive immigration reform proposal as "amnesty," claiming undocumented immigrants will not have to earn citizenship. In fact, immigrants here illegally would face a number of hurdles before they could even apply for permanent residency under the bill, including paying fees, fines, and taxes.

On her syndicated radio show, Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham repeatedly claimed that the Senate bill -- introduced on April 17 as the "Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act" -- is "amnesty" because, according to her, undocumented immigrants will not be punished for breaking the law. She further stated: "This is amnesty. Within six months, every single person here illegally gets to be RPI. RPI is the provisional immigrant status. You get that in six months after the bill is signed."

Rush Limbaugh also attacked the bill as "amnesty" on his radio show.

In fact, the bill places a number of conditions on undocumented immigrants before they can apply for citizenship -- which is contingent upon the federal government meeting several border enforcement guidelines. Moreover, not all would qualify.

According to a summary of the Senate bill, conditions for citizenship include:

  • passing criminal and security background checks
  • living in the United States before January 1, 2012
  • not having been convicted of a felony or three separate misdemeanors
  • paying $500 fine for initial application; another $500 fine for renewal of provisional status after 6 years; $1,000 penalty for adjusting to permanent residency
  • maintaining regular employment or education, paying taxes, and showing ability to support oneself before renewing PRI status
  • demonstrating they are learning English and are knowledgeable of civics

Undocumented immigrants would not become eligible to apply for citizenship until at least 13 years after becoming a Registered Provisional Immigrant (PRI). And no PRI would be able to apply before the federal government met several border enforcement benchmarks.

On her show, Ingraham later used the analogy of a traffic ticket to reinforce her point:

INGRAHAM: Why is it not supposed to be called amnesty? Because illegal immigrants must earn their citizenship. But if an ordinary American citizen gets a traffic ticket, the law is not just going to forget about it, no matter what good deeds he does afterwards.

I better apply that to my automatic ticket I got the other day for blowing through one of those zones. I got one of those -- 100 bucks. Can I just do some good deeds afterward? Pay what I think is the right fine and then be forgiven the points on my license? No, I don't think so.

But that analogy fails principally because the law does let you keep your license after minor traffic violations. As America's Voice executive director Frank Sharry stated of suggestions that the Senate bill is amnesty:

"If you look at what the consequences are -- first of all you have to come forward and register, submit to a background check. You have to pay fines. ... To me it's kind of like people who are caught for speeding. If you get caught for speeding in many states, they say 'okay, you have to pay a fine, take a class, lose your license for a while and you'll be reinstated.' No one calls that an amnesty."

Right-wing talk radio hosts were credited with killing the 2007 comprehensive immigration reform bill using similar cries of "amnesty."

As a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism reported, hosts opposed to the legislation "often referred to it with the politically damning term 'amnesty bill'":

The best way to get a sense of how the immigration debate galvanized some talk hosts is to return back to the week of the May 17, when the Senate compromise endorsed by the White House was announced.

In the period from May 13 through June 8, the immigration debate was the second-most popular talk topic (18%), narrowly trailing the presidential race (21%) and doubling the time spent on the next biggest subject, the Iraq policy debate (9%).

But while the amount of time devoted to the subject is telling, equally revealing is the question of who talked about it. In that 26-day period, the airwaves were dominated by vocal hosts opposed to the legislation who often referred to it with the politically damning term "amnesty bill."

The New York Times highlighted right-wing radio opposition in a June 2007 article and noted that hosts' reference to "amnesty" was a "hot-button word" that was used to dismantle support for the bill:

"The opposition to the amnesty plan is so much more intense than the intensity of the supporters," said [president of the conservative group, Let Freedom Ring, Colin] Hanna, speaking of the bill's provisions to grant legal status to qualifying illegal immigrants, which the authors of the legislation insisted was not amnesty.

In the end, supporters conceded that they were outmaneuvered by opponents who boiled down their complaints to that single hot-button word, repeated often and viscerally on talk radio programs and blogs.

"It's a lot easier to yell one word, 'amnesty,' and it takes a little more to explain, 'No, it's not, and if you don't do anything you have a silent amnesty,' " said Janet Napolitano, the Arizona governor and a Democrat who backed the measure.

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