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January 26, 2022

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War of words under way in immigration reform debate

As the immigration debate gets fully under way in Congress, Nevada lawmakers are bracing for tough policy battles.

They also are looking for ways to avoid a war of words.

Compiling an immigration bill is a complex task, one that in past attempts has been stymied by disagreement over simple definitions of key words, such as “amnesty” and “border security,” and the adjective options “undocumented” vs. “illegal.”

“Everybody has a different idea, or a different understanding of what some of these terms mean,” said Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller. “That’s what makes it so difficult.”

Six years ago, when Congress last tried — and failed — to reach an immigration compromise, a vocal opposition rallied around a single word: amnesty, which is what they complained an immigration bill that contemplated awarding eventual citizenship to people who had entered the country illegal was.

But then and now, it is challenging to find two lawmakers who agree on exactly where the line rests between what is absolute “amnesty” and what incorporates enough fair punishment to avoid that designation.

“To some people, it means round everybody up and send 'em back, and short of that is amnesty,” said Nevada Republican Rep. Mark Amodei. “Other people say you should be able do anything, and nothing is amnesty.

“The phrase has become meaningless. There is no definition. So, fine — let’s move on to the issues.”

But other lawmakers say it’s impossible to separate the terms of the immigration debate from its terminology.

“Language is important ... terms matter in this debate,” said Nevada Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford, who believes there is “no ambiguity” that terms like “amnesty” and “illegal” are misapplied in the immigration debate.

“Sometimes you have to look at the motivation behind why certain people want to use emotionally charged language. This is an emotional issue,” Horsford said. “To add emotionally charged language, as members of the other side have, doesn’t make the process any easier.”

Some Republican lawmakers, such as House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith, are still using terms like “amnesty” to describe comprehensive reform efforts in a manner indistinguishable from 2007: He last used the term in late January in a statement that threw water on a bipartisan group of senators’ effort to present a draft immigration framework they are currently drafting into a bill.

But others, like Heller, have taken pains to remove such words from their vocabulary.

“There are harsh words, and it doesn’t necessarily aid the discussion to use harsh words,” he said.

But Heller, Amodei and many others, including Democrats, still rely heavily on other phrases that they acknowledge are just as ill-defined, such as “border security.”

“You know on 80 percent of this we can agree — strong border security, something for the Dreamers — and it looks like we’re coming together,” Heller said.

But when asked whether lawmakers actually agree on what “strong border security” is, Heller paused.

“No,” he said. “Everybody has a different definition. It’s a real uphill battle on the message.”

There are specific factors in play behind each of these terms. Determining what constitutes a “secure border” must rely on benchmarks. It’s just not clear whether lawmakers will choose the number of border patrol units on the ground, the number of cross-border apprehensions, the number of miles of fencing or some other indicator as their security measure.

Similarly defining amnesty may depend on how many penalties, fines and delays are established as preliminary clearances for would-be citizen immigrants not presently authorized to be in the United States. Already, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the Republican Party’s unofficial voice on immigration reform, has deemed “dead on arrival” President Barack Obama’s first specific proposal — a draft bill that would make such immigrants wait eight years for a green card.

Even in cases where the factors are clear, the descriptors might not be. For several years, the immigrant community has been making the case to politicians and publications to use “undocumented” over “illegal” when describing foreign immigrants present in the United States who are not authorized to be in the country.

But as a short survey of Nevada lawmakers reveals, many still do not feel comfortable applying either term to the group.

When some members of the delegation were presented with “undocumented” vs. “illegal” last week, Horsford was the only one to choose. (He picked “undocumented”).

Amodei dismissed the choice and went instead with “one in four people in Nevada” — a figure that accurately describes the size of the state’s Hispanic population but not necessarily the size of the population here without authorization.

A recent report from the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that about 7.2 percent of Nevada’s population and about 10 percent of its labor force is made up of immigrants without authorization to be in the U.S. Those percentages are the highest estimates Pew reported for any state in the nation. According to the U.S. Census, about 20 percent of Nevada’s population is foreign-born.

“Good community members?” Heller suggested as an alternative, with a weak grin, when asked whether he preferred using the term “undocumented” or “illegal.”

Some lawmakers argue that dwelling on the terminology is diverting the focus of the debate away from where it is actually needed if Congress is to produce a comprehensive immigration bill in 2013.

“I started out going, 'Well, (the debate) is about border security; it’s status and it’s guest workers.' Well, no it’s not,” Amodei said. “Those are three things, but then there’s jobs for tech workers, visa quotas ... there’s also spousal issues. There’s tons.

“I’ve found so far that my safe haven is I will endeavor to find the facts; I will talk to you about the nuts and bolts and why I have decided what I have decided after I do that. Because trying to talk about this politically is idiotic. No matter what you say, you’ll be wrong.”

While both sides seem clear that the only way to complete a comprehensive bill on immigration is to make a bipartisan deal, it is highly unlikely that Washington lawmakers will table politics for the several months’ duration it will take to work legislation through the House and Senate.

Though some lawmakers find it unsettling that their syntactical nuance will be vetted as closely as their substantive proposals, others see no problem with putting lawmakers’ verbiage under the spotlight.

“I don’t know, maybe I use terminology that’s not inflammatory,” said Nevada Democratic Rep. Dina Titus, shrugging off any idea that she would have to worry about keeping tabs on her preferred terms. “But in politics, small words can mean big things.”

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