Here is Merriam Webster’s definition of “amnesty:” “the act of an authority (as a government) by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.” Here is MW’s simplified version: “a decision that a group of people will not be punished or that a group of prisoners will be allowed to go free.” Here is another version, from “a blanket abolition of an offense by the government, with the legal result that those charged or convicted have the charge or conviction wiped out.”

Now let’s look at a different (though somewhat similar) term: “plea bargain.” Here is Wikipedia on the definition of plea bargain: “A plea bargain (also plea agreement, plea deal, copping a plea, or plea in mitigation) is any agreement in a criminal case between the prosecutor and defendant whereby the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a particular charge in return for some concession from the prosecutor.” (emphasis added) Yet another take, from Merriam Webster: “a process in which a person who is accused of a crime is allowed to say that he or she is guilty of a less serious crime in order to be given a less severe punishment.” (emphasis added).

So, what is the difference between amnesty and plea bargain? The obvious difference is that, while each term involves a form of forgiveness or pardon for misconduct, only a plea bargain involves a tradeoff, with the perpetrator required to do something (“some concession,” such as a guilty plea) in return for the favor.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) has come to be known as the “Reagan Amnesty” law. But IRCA never met the definition of amnesty, it was just a massive plea bargain, because it did not pardon the crime of illegal entry, it merely allowed the illegals to remain in the U.S. in return for certain actions and conditions. IRCA only presented a settlement offer to the illegals: they could remain, but only if they paid some money and did some other things. It was a trade-off: you do some important things for us, and we will do something important for you. The reason IRCA came to be viewed as “amnesty,” rather than a trade-off, was that the illegals were rarely held to their side of the bargain – illegals who failed to comply with the conditions were almost never punished or deported. Federal enforcement of the trade-off terms was so negligent that the public eventually came to treat the terms as meaningless, meaning IRCA became the practical equivalent of amnesty rather than a plea bargain.

(The conditions under IRCA were that you had to show that you entered the United States before January 1, 1982 and had resided here continuously thereafter, and that you paid a fine, paid all back taxes due, admitted guilt regarding the illegal entry into the U.S., committed no other crimes while here, and possessed at least minimal knowledge about U.S. history, government, and the English language. The conditions were thus quite substantial, and had they been properly enforced, we would have no reason to describe the IRCA as “amnesty.”)

Now, let’s compare the conditions in the IRCA with the campaign platform of Senator Marco Rubio, which is set forth on his website –

The Rubio plan states that Illegal immigrants will be granted the opportunity to remain in the U.S. only if they do the following:

“First, those here illegally must come forward and be registered. If they have committed serious crimes or have not been here long enough, they will have to leave. With the new E-Verify system in place, they are going to find it difficult to find a job in any case.

“Second, those who qualify would be allowed to apply for a temporary nonimmigrant visa. To obtain it they will have to pay an application fee and a fine, undergo a background check and learn English. Once they receive this work permit, they would be allowed to work legally and travel. To keep it, they will have to pay taxes. They would not qualify for government programs like Obamacare, welfare or food stamps. And if they commit a crime while in this status, they would lose their permit.

“Third and finally, those who qualify for a nonimmigrant visa will have to remain in this status for at least a decade. After that, they would be allowed to apply for permanent residency if they so choose. Many who qualify for this status will choose to remain in it indefinitely. But those who choose to seek permanent residency would have to do it the way anyone else would, not through any special pathway.”

Thus there is a substantial set of “trade-offs” involved in the Rubio plan. You cannot even stay here (much less qualify for citizenship) unless you fulfill a lengthy list of conditions. You face deportation if at any time you fail on any one of the conditions. That is not a forgiveness, it is an offer to settle a criminal case, with the criminal giving up something very substantial in return. While the Rubio plan also includes a pathway to actual citizenship, it is an extremely long pathway: all of the conditions must continue to be met by the immigrant for at least 10 years from the date when he or she first fulfills all of the indicated conditions, before the immigrant can even get to the back of the line of legal applicants for citizenship.

Yet a substantial portion of the voting population has been led to believe that Sen. Rubio favors “amnesty” for illegals, even though that is clearly not the case. Yes, it is theoretically possible that a Rubio White House might ignore the new Rubio policy, just as all presidents before him have ignored the terms and intentions of the IRCA, but that could be said of any candidate. Can anyone doubt that even a Ted Cruz or a Donald Trump might eventually discover the same thing that his predecessors discovered, which is that immigration reform is more easily enacted than enforced.

To suggest that Sen. Rubio is in favor of “amnesty” because you are not sure he would diligently enforce the provisions of his own immigration reform plan, is unfair and incorrect. Why should we assume that Trump and Cruz would enforce our laws any more rigorously than Rubio – or more rigorously than Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush II, or Obama did? How can you call the Rubio position “amnesty” based on a prediction that he would not enforce his own law?

If you are skeptical about this analysis, if you consider it the work of an establishment Republican who is bending the truth in order to support the Rubio camp, consider this extract from a news article in the January 27, 2014 edition of the Chicago Tribune, regarding Edward Snowden: “On Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder rejected amnesty but did not rule out the possibility of plea negotiations, if Snowden returned to plead guilty. ‘If Mr. Snowden wanted to come back to the United States and enter a plea, we would engage with his lawyers,’ Holder said.” Clearly, Mr. Holder understood that amnesty and plea bargains are two quite different things.

The other explanation of the representation of the Rubio plan as “amnesty” is that Mr. Rubio at one point reversed his priorities – he switched to putting border security first, before implementation of the pathway to legal status and citizenship begins. That may be politically interesting, but factually it has nothing to do with whether the Rubio plan should be considered amnesty.

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