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What does amnesty accomplish?

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Eric Thayer/Reuters/File

(Read caption) A worker labors in lettuce fields near San Luis, Arizona.

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“Amnesty” has the same root as “amnesia.” The idea is to forget if not forgive. Amnesty moves people outside the law inside it – while usually staying silent on whether it was right or wrong to break the law in the first place. The first recorded amnesty, granted by the Greek general Thrasybulus in the 5th century BC, aimed to erase the memory of Spartan rule and allow Athenian democracy to flourish.

Amnesties are more about practicality than principle. They are used to get beyond a divisive issue, recognizing that onetime foes must live together in the future – the Great Rebellion in Britain in 1660, the American Civil War. Vietnam draft resisters were granted amnesty by President Carter in 1977. The war was over. The draft had been abolished. It was time to move on.

Erin Siegal’s Monitor cover story examines President Reagan’s 1986 amnesty of illegal immigrants, looking for successes, failures, and precedents as Congress considers a new amnesty. The law provided a pathway to citizenship for nearly 3 million people over the past quarter century. In Erin’s report, you’ll meet some of them.

The amnesty of ’86 came and went without a change in the conditions that contributed to illegal immigration. The 2,000-mile-long US-Mexican border remained easily breached; economic opportunity in the United States remained much better than in Latin America; and US employers faced few repercussions if they hired undocumented workers. 

Since the turn of the century, however, border security has tightened significantly and employment verification has increased through programs like E-Verify. More important, economic doldrums in the US and brightening prospects in Latin America have changed the psychology of border crossers (see Sara Miller Llana’s April 9, 2012, Monitor Weekly cover story). Illegal entries today are one-fifth what they were in 2000. 

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