Because We All Need a Little Amnesty

By Bill Mefford 

One thing that seems, at least at first glance, in short supply in our politics these days is the act of pardoning. We have become more tribal and more distrustful that at any time in anyone’s memory and pardoning – releasing another person from wrongs done or offenses committed – seems to be the last thing on anyone’s list of things to do for another person, especially when we consider the political issues of our day.

However, if we dig a little deeper, we will find that pardoning others happens all of the time, even in those cases when the offenses have had enormous consequences. Take, for example, the financial meltdown of 2008, when the housing market took an enormous hit and people lost their homes and jobs, some lost their retirement savings, and huge financial institutions almost went under. This came as a result of a lack of regulations and some very questionable, if not downright unethical and illegal decisions made and actions taken by the leadership of those big financial institutions. Did anyone – did a single employee of Wall Street or in any part of the financial sector face a single charge for their actions which have devastated untold numbers of peoples’ lives? Not one.

They all received amnesty.

Or take President George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and their staffs. Their willful disregard for transparency or truth brought us into two wars we have yet to extricate ourselves. They also instituted what they deceitfully called “enhancement techniques” in questioning so-called "war on terror" suspects. In other words, they changed the policy of the United States so that engage in torture. Though we prosecuted three low-level army personnel for torture at the Iraqui prison, Abu Ghraib, nothing was done to those who wrote the policies. In fact, one of those who wrote the legal memo supporting the use of torture and undermining the United Nations human rights standards was teaching law at Stanford the last I heard!

Yep, they all received amnesty.

And, more recently, there is Joe Arpaio. Arpaio was the former sheriff in Arizona who brazenly and repeatedly racially profiled immigrants and people of color, and committed human rights abuses against those under his custody such as keeping inmates shackled and living in tents in 117 degree temperatures as well as shackling pregnant women while they gave birth. He was convicted of disobeying a court injunction stopping him and was set to go to jail (though I think they were going to house him inside an actual jail and not just a tent).

But he was a buddy of donald trump so naturally, he received amnesty.

People get amnesty all of the time, even for the most heinous of actions. Amnesty is usually given because we know and like the people who receive it. We even talk about how amnesty is given because the recipients have “earned” it. But how do you “earn” something that is freely given? If you “earn” it, then it’s not amnesty; it’s a form of compensation. We grant amnesty to people we know and like and we withhold it from people we do not know or we do not like.

For over ten years I worked in an official capacity on the issue of immigration on Capitol Hill. For that entire time I worked as part of an advocacy community, most of whom are incredibly smart and talented people, but yet, all of whom operated by one simple rule: we do not advocate for amnesty. No one, and I mean no one, used the “A” word in our Hill meetings, or even with one another. It was just a no-no.

Instead, we advocated for an “earned pathway to citizenship” as part of a package of “comprehensive” immigration reform. But one thing I noticed early on is that though I was told (repeatedly, and quite annoyingly), that “earned pathway to citizenship” tested well in public polls, our talking points were regularly co-opted by the other side – the anti-immigrant side – and they were given new meanings. Their "pathway" what they termed "legality" took on a meaning more like an endless maze that takes decades to complete and is designed to kick the majority of those on the “pathway” out of it.

In addition, the political cost of getting a pathway to citizenship – even one that resembles running the gauntlet so as to drastically limit the access to most undocumented immigrants have to citizenship – was and remains enormous. To get any pathway to citizenship meant then and still means today the end of family reunification as well as an end to any and all immigration from “shithole” countries.

To legalize a fraction of those who are here and are undocumented meant that we were supposed to sacrifice millions and millions of people both currently and those coming in the future, even though leading economists have told us repeatedly that we need immigration to actually be at higher rates than it is currently.

What’s more, several years ago, I went around to the smartest immigration policy wonks I knew here in DC and asked them what would they do if they could wave a magic wand and fix the broken immigration system and there were absolutely no politics involved. I asked five different experts because I had a hunch I knew what most of their answers would entail. The interesting thing is that each one of them had no idea how to answer initially; they could not even imagine approaching this issue without the hateful political rhetoric that it remains swallowed in. But once they got past that initial hurdle, they all said the same basic thing: we need amnesty for all undocumented immigrants.

The truth is that for so many undocumented immigrants, they have already run the gauntlet; they have been on the path to citizenship – some for decades – and they have indeed “earned” it. Immigrants have paid billions in taxes and have started businesses and created jobs. There is virtually no industry that has not benefited from immigrants.

But even more, immigrants have added to the well-being of our communities and congregations. Immigrants show us what hard work, determination, and love of family are.

So I am done allowing twisted politics and racist worldviews of people like donald trump and Steve King to decide what I am advocating for and what I want my country to do and look like.

I am going to use the “A” word. I am going to advocate for amnesty for all undocumented immigrants.

Because we all need a little amnesty from time to time.

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