Dan Holler

“If we get stuck talking about amnesty, we lose.”

For the third time in eight years, the U.S. Senate is debating what many in the media call a landmark immigration bill. This time around, proponents of the bill are cashing in on lessons learned from failed attempts in 2006 and 2007. Chief among those lessons is that words matter.

Last week, Karl Rove wrote, “Republicans must consider the impressions they will create by what they say.” Rove, of course, was very supportive of the failed 2006 and 2007 efforts in his capacity as political guru for then-President George W. Bush.

The main purpose of Rove’s piece in the Wall Street Journal was to stress, “It is also important that Republicans avoid calling a pathway to citizenship ‘amnesty.’” In fact, nearly one-third of Rove’s words are dedicated to explaining why the Senate’s Gang of Eight bill is not amnesty.

Rove is exceedingly smart and, to his credit, very transparent in his end goal. He desperately believes that “immigration reform is now a gateway issue,” and that the Republican Party must be instrumental “in passing comprehensive reform with a path to citizenship” for the GOP to be competitive in national elections.

In other words, he believes it is politically savvy for the GOP to lead the charge on an amnesty bill. At the same time, he understands (and this is actually true) that the word itself is extremely unpopular. Rove knows it, and so do senators who want to vote in favor of the Gang of Eight’s bill.

Late last week, a source heard two prominent Senators discussing messaging and strategy. The conversation, as relayed to me, went something like this:

Senator A: Why are you talking so much about border security?

Senator B: If we are talking about border security, we win. If we get stuck talking about amnesty, we lose.

As the Heritage Foundation has explained, “Amnesty comes in many forms.” There can be no doubt the Gang of Eight’s bill is an amnesty bill. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) acknowledged as much in an op-ed of his own last week:

“For starters, its border-security triggers are talking points disguised as policy: Legalization of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States would be activated by meaningless promises rather than concrete results. Haven't we heard enough of that from Washington?”

This legalization-first approach is amnesty. Were the bill to become law, immigrants in the country illegally could apply for legal status in just 180 days. As a Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI), the previously illegal immigrants could live and work in the country legally.

Dan Holler

Dan Holler is the Communications Director for Heritage Action for America. Previously, he held numerous positions at The Heritage Foundation, most recently he was the Senate Relations Deputy. A Maryland native, he is a graduate of Washington College.