Amnesty isn’t a dirty word

AMNESTY HAS become the political act that dare not speak its name. Nativists go wild when they hear the term. Mainstream immigrant advocates talk around it. Immigration-restriction fanatics have so poisoned and blurred the word’s meaning that they see it lurking in any legislation that proposes anything less than jail time or mass deportations for illegal immigrants.

But is the idea of amnesty really as outlandish and un-American as radio talk-show hosts and Republican politicians make it sound? Is it really antithetical to our sacred notion of rule of law? Well, yes and no.

It helps to look back at the word’s origins. Although dictionaries differ slightly, Webster’s New International defines it as “the act of an authority (such as a government) by which general pardon of an offense is granted, often before trial or conviction, especially to a large group of individuals.” The term “amnesty” derives from the Greek amnestia, which means forgetfulness and forgiveness.

The fundamental question, then, is whether the government should ever circumvent the legal process and dispense forgiveness. Certainly, the Constitution allows the president the power to pardon all offenses except impeachment. A holdover from monarchical government, the presidential pardon has been controversial from the beginning of the republic, when some of the framers worried about its potential for abuse.


More than two centuries later, President Clinton’s infamous last-minute pardon of Marc Rich, a fugitive commodities trader accused of tax evasion and of making illegal oil deals with Iran during the hostage crisis, resurrected such concerns, particularly because Rich’s ex-wife donated nearly half a million dollars to Clinton’s presidential library fund.

But not all pardons and amnesties in U.S. history have been so utterly devoid of social value. Whether you agreed with it or not, President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon did end our long, polarizing national Watergate nightmare. Historically, amnesties have served a similar purpose of social reconciliation.

It is true that the failure to punish lawbreakers challenges the rule of law and our collective sense of fair play. When we abrogate that rule, we threaten to undermine the social contract. And yet the very idea of pardons and amnesties presupposes that law has its limits and that, on occasion, it is trumped by other values — social cohesion, for one, and a larger view of justice, for another. If the hunger for judgment and punishment is driven — and I believe it is — by a sense of resentment toward lawbreakers, then acts of political forgiveness represent the lifting of that resentment.

As a means to keep the peace, in 1795 President Washington pardoned the leaders of a rebellion against the whiskey tax, a controversial law that was later repealed. In order to “bind up our nation’s wounds” during and after the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson issued more than 200,000 presidential pardons to Union deserters and Confederate soldiers. Indeed, Johnson’s 1868 Christmas amnesty proclamation granted unconditional pardons to all participants in the war.

In 1947, President Truman issued pardons to 1,500 World War II draft resisters. A few years later, he granted amnesty to 9,000 deserters from the Korean War. A generation later, in 1974, Ford offered a conditional amnesty to men who evaded the draft during the Vietnam War. In 1977, in one of his first acts as president, Jimmy Carter granted draft evaders a “full, complete and unconditional pardon.” His act was meant to put the divisions and antagonisms of the war behind us.

Not all amnesties have such lofty goals. But in all cases, those in authority must weigh the costs of enforcement against the benefits of bringing people together or back into good standing with the government. States routinely offer individuals and businesses tax amnesties. Every so often, libraries set up amnesty periods in which readers can return late books with no charge. Likewise, municipalities offer parking ticket amnesties to give scofflaws a chance to start over with a clean slate.

Sometimes even companies and private organizations resort to amnesties. In their fight against piracy, cable companies have offered immunity from prosecution to people who admit to using unauthorized service, assuming that forgiveness will get them to pay up. In an attempt to get people to quit drinking, one Southern university pardons students for violating campus alcohol policy if they seek medical assistance for themselves or others.

It’s a political reality that general amnesty is no longer an option for illegal immigrants. But some form of it is probably going to be required to solve the mess of our long-delayed immigration policy, and even amnesty haters have to admit that it has its purposes.


Just ask those turkeys that get their necks saved by the president in the Rose Garden every year right before Thanksgiving.