Immigrant Song

When did Amnesty become a dirty word?

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

The words inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty have become just that…words. No longer do they represent America’s stand for moral compassion. Immigration policy has gone through a dramatic shift towards restriction in years past and, as evidenced by last week’s events, still remains in flux.

As if it were in hibernation for the past year, the immigration issue has reemerged into the sunlight of public debate. The marches that brought millions of people to the streets all over the country in protest of a proposed immigration bill a year ago eventually resulted in a congressional stalemate. Now, a whole new bill is making people talk. But it may prove to be that the terms they choose to use will be the most compelling part of the entire debate.

All About Amnesty

According to the New York Times, the new proposed senate bill, announced two weeks ago, would create a guest worker program to help fill job positions that American employers need and it would provide a path to citizenship for nearly all illegal immigrants residing in the U.S. provided they pay a $5000 fine, have a clean criminal history, and demonstrate education and job skills. However, both of these measures would only be enacted after a 370 mile triple-layer fence was erected along the US/Mexico border and employer enforcement began on citizenship verification of its employees. Many critics of the bill argue it favors an immigrant’s job skills over any family ties they may have to the U.S. But rising from all the details comes one word that has come to shape the entire debate, “Amnesty.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney blasted the proposed measure at the outset saying, “One simple rule: No Amnesty.” While he and many conservatives argue that any legalization process for illegal immigrants amounts to amnesty, many liberals back into defense mode arguing that with enough penalties (such as fines and education requirements), a legalization process would not be amnesty. But why has amnesty taken on such a negative connotation? defines Amnesty as “an act of forgiveness for past offenses, especially to a class of persons as a whole.” It has usually been used to refer to war or political criminals. But now it has come to signify everything that is wrong with U.S. immigration policy. Instead of examining the merits of amnesty and deciding whether or not it should be granted, the question has become whether or not a bill issues amnesty (with the understanding that amnesty is a bad thing).


It is especially surprising when people of faith argue so passionately against amnesty, especially considering the fact that most faith traditions consider forgiveness to be practically obligatory. One Buddhist meditation says, “Think of any one person, or any situation, or any group of people whom you are condemning, blaming, disliking. Forgive them, completely.”

The Qu’ran adds, “Let not those among you who are endued with grace and amplitude of means resolve by oath against helping their kinsmen, those in want and those who migrated in the path of Allah. Let them forgive and overlook. Do you not wish that Allah should forgive you? Indeed Allah is oft-Forgiving, most Merciful.”

“Despite all the incendiary rhetoric that surrounds the issue, most immigrants who illegally cross the U.S. border do nothing more than walk across a political line in the sand carrying hopes and dreams of a better life.”

And for Christians, Jesus makes a clear call for forgiveness in his conversation with his disciple Peter. “Then Peter came and said to Him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21-22)

Despite all the incendiary rhetoric that surrounds the issue, most immigrants who illegally cross the U.S. border do nothing more than walk across a political line in the sand carrying hopes and dreams of a better life. Many are being pushed from the stiff arms of poverty and desperation into the U.S., a much more prosperous land. So if, as people of faith, we are enjoined to practice a radical form of forgiveness—even with regard to our worst enemies—surely it is easier to forgive the stranger who has been driven to extreme lengths by necessity.

Truth and Reconciliation

A beautiful example of this forgiveness came in the form of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Soon after the fall of apartheid and the country’s first democratic election in 1994, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, granted amnesty on the perpetrators of the Apartheid policy. Years of oppression and violent injustice had been wiped away with a single wide-scale act of forgiveness, an act of amnesty. This unprecedented action allowed the young democracy to move forward and prosper. South Africa is now looked at as a model to the world.

South Africa has shown us that amnesty may in fact be necessary to move forward as a nation. Only after we forgive, will we be free to tackle the much deeper and more complex issues such as international trade agreements and global poverty that have contributed to the U.S. immigration situation.

One group that is advocating for a change in the legislation is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) whose long outspoken call for a comprehensive immigration reform has culminated into a large-scale campaign “Justice for Immigrants: A Journey of Hope.” Bishop Gerald Barnes, Chairman of the USCCB committee on Migration, said recently, “Congress should ensure that any final legislation contains a legalization program which is workable and includes family unity and a fair and realistic path to citizenship.”

A Sad Chorus

The proposed U.S. immigration bill has a long way to go before it can become law. It was approved by the Senate late last week and is on its way to the House of Representatives for what will likely be a long and heated debate. President Bush has already voiced his approval of the bill. However, it could look very different by the time it reaches his desk.

Meanwhile, as presidential primary elections near, immigration will continue to be the subject of debate and the source of contention in political circles and the general public. And the concept of Amnesty will almost surely continue to be thrown around like it’s a hot potato.

So much of the debate surrounding the issue of immigration plays upon the worst parts of ourselves: our deepest fears and least charitable judgments. Rather than add to that sad chorus, people of faith and conscience should be leading us into a discussion that considers forgiveness to be a moral duty, not simply a suggested option. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”