An iron-clad rule of the the immigration debate is that advocates of amnesty are never willing to describe their own proposals as amnesty, although they will throw the word around about everything else. Marco Rubio, for instance, vociferously denied that the Gang of Eight bill was an amnesty, while he called the (functionally very similar) 1986 law an amnesty and called the status quo an amnesty. President Obama played by the same rules tonight:
I know some of the critics of this action call it amnesty. Well, it’s not. Amnesty is the immigration system we have today — millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules, while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time.
Going further, he said “mass amnesty would be unfair,” and called his proposal to give previously illegal immigrants some of the most important benefits enjoyed by legal immigrants “accountability.” It’s a sign of the enduring vulnerability of the pro-amnesty position that its supporters feel compelled to engage in this wordplay.
We’ve heard a lot about prosecutorial discretion the last few days, but, clearly, what the president is doing isn’t simply declining to enforce the law in certain instances; it is a new system, or as the president described it, a new “deal”:
So we’re going to offer the following deal: If you’ve been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check, and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes — you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily, without fear of deportation. You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.
His rejoinder to those who doubt his power to unilaterally rewrite the law was a reiteration of his blackmail:
And to those Members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill.
The speech had some nice rhetorical touches, especially toward the end, but otherwise was standard Obama fare. His position is, of course, the middle ground between mass amnesty and mass deportation; his opponents are consumed with grubby political considerations — they “scare people and whip up votes at election time”; as ever, he called for an end to “politics as usual.”
Altogether it would have been a wholly adequate pitch for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, in the normal give-and-take over proposed legislation. But he’s out of that business. Now he proposes and disposes, and the only alternative is assent.