Whatever Amnesty Is, They’re Agin’ It

The thing about flip-flopping is that it doesn’t work too well unless it is executed cleanly. If you find yourself issuing “clarifications” or encountering very different interpretations of where you’ve landed after flipping and flopping, you may still be in mid-air. Then you start sounding like one of those weaselly Ivy-League Elitist Lawyer-Politicians, even if you’re Scott Walker and didn’t finish college at Marquette and avoided Shark School.

So you have to wonder what he’s doing in overtly, with a “Hey Look At Me I’m Changing My position” gesture, flip-flopping on immigration policy and then leaving as much confusion as ever about what he actually thinks.

In his original flip-flop, Walker mainly wanted everybody to know he used to favor “amnesty” but didn’t any more. That was assumed to be a position that ruled out any “path to citizenship” reforms for the 11 million undocumented Americans. And if Team Walker was bothered when observers contrasted his position with Jeb Bush’s–which is yes to legalization but no to citizenship–they didn’t rush out to contradict it.

Now, as you may have heard, according to Reid Epstein of the Wall Street Journal some New Hampshire Republicans are claiming Walker confused everybody again at a private dinner in New Hampshire:

[D]uring the March 13 private dinner, organized by New Hampshire Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Horn at the Copper Door Restaurant in Bedford, N.H., Mr. Walker said undocumented immigrants shouldn’t be deported, and he mocked 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s suggestion that they would “self-deport,” according to people who were there.

Instead, they said, Mr. Walker said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to “eventually get their citizenship without being given preferential treatment” ahead of people already in line to obtain citizenship.

“He said no to citizenship now, but later they could get it,” said Bill Greiner, an owner of the Copper Door. Ken Merrifield, mayor of Franklin, N.H., who also attended, said Mr. Walker proposed that illegal immigrants should “get to the back of the line for citizenship” but not be deported.

Walker’s people promptly denied the account, but all they’d say is that yes, he opposes “amnesty.”

Now some observers seem to think that if the WSJ account is correct he’s gone back to his original “path to citizenship” position, or never actually abandoned it. But opposition to what is usually meant by a “path to citzenship” doesn’t require a lifetime ban on legal immigration, which is what Walker seemed to be talking about in NH. On the other hand, it sure does appear (again, if the account is correct) he’s ruling out (a) the “cattle-car option” of forced deportation for all 11 million undocumented people, or (b) the idea of making them so miserable they “self-deport.” Unless I’m missing something, the only position left is somewhere pretty close to Jeb’s.

What this incident shows is how slippery the concept of “amnesty” really is. The dictionary definition of the word connotes forgiveness–something above and beyond what the law allows, usually applied categorically, not individually. Now you can make the argument that the kind of “path to citizenship” contemplated in comprehensive immigration reform proposals isn’t strictly speaking “amnesty” because it involves the payment of fines and back taxes and learning English; it’s more like a reduced sentence subject to some conditions. But clearly, most GOP nativists still consider that “amnesty.” A “path to legalization,” on the other hand, typically denies the reward of citizenship perpetually–unless, of course, the person in question qualified for legal immigration, which usually involves leaving the country first. Without question, some conservatives think anything other than deportation–or maintaining the threat of deportation–is amnesty.

So Walker–and really the whole field–need to clarify which definition of “amnesty” they oppose, and what, exactly, is going to happen to the 11 million after the border is sealed and so on and so forth. It’s worth remembering that some people oppose “amnesty” only because it’s supposedly a “magnet” to further illegal border crossings. If that’s not happening any more, is there any reason not to give the 11 million a break? Or will only cattle cars do?

Let’s get this all cleared up.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.