Having spent years working in immigration law, the current immigration cluster is enough to make me want to neck punch the entire internet (except for commenters who like my posts, of course).

Of the many immigration rhetoric atrocities that make my blood boil, one of the worst is the lax use of terms like “amnesty” and “pathway to citizenship.” “Pathway to legalization” is also on that list. These poor, defenseless terms are tossed about without regard for their respective definitions. They’re used interchangeably, mischaracterized, and generally abused by armchair immigrationers and political reporters alike.

Words matter. Definitions matter. Not being an ignoramus? Also important.

So let’s talk about these terms, shall we?

The “A” Word

If you get nothing else from this post, let it be this — LEAVE THE WORD “AMNESTY” ALONE. Don’t touch it,  don’t point at it, don’t even look at it.

By no fault of its own, “amnesty” has been so perverted that it no longer holds any meaning of any kind other than, “quick, everyone FREAK OUT!”

Last month, the Washington Examiner explored the “A” word pox on the national immigration shouting match:

What qualifies as “amnesty?” A grant of citizenship? Permanent permission to work in the U.S.? Temporary permission? A special procedure for dealing with illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. that does anything besides deport them? A continued chance for permanent residency through existing processes, which amounts to forgiveness of the earlier illegal act of entering the U.S.? An expansion of legal immigration so as to obviate the enormous demand for illegal immigration? A policy of prioritizing certain deportations (of felons, for example) over others?

Literally every Republican candidate, including Donald Trump, supports at least one of the above. (And just three years ago, Trump suggested Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election because he was too hardline on immigration.)

What Rubio’s comments highlight is that every realistic immigration policy could in some way be described as an “amnesty.” All of the candidates are imperfect for that sliver of the GOP base that has not accepted that universal deportation is never going to happen.

There are but two instances of “amnesty” in recent history: President Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act and President Obama’s Executive Order Amnesty, which was halted by federal courts some months ago (you can thank Texas for that one).

“Amnesty” once meant taking someone with no legal status in the United States and granting them legal status. In fact, that’s its technical definition. But for reasons mentioned above, “pathway to citizenship” and “pathway to legalization” are almost always more accurate.

“Pathway to citizenship”

Strike this one from the word bank along with the “A” word. The only pathway to citizenship is naturalization.

One of the only exceptions is Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest or MAVNI for short. MAVNI allows individuals currently in legal status to fast track their citizenship. Why? Because they’ve joined the military and will be fighting for our country. You want to die for our country, we’re happy to let you be a citizen before you do.

Generally speaking though, no one is talking about a “pathway to citizenship” unless they’re ill-informed, misunderstood what they heard, or are trying to scare the bajeebus out of the easily trusting.

“Pathway to legalization”

This one is a winner.

In the broad context of the immigration wars, the distinction between legalization and citizenship is crucial.

A “pathway to legalization” typically means granting Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or a green card (also known as Lawful Permanent Resident or LPR status).

A few important facts here:

  • Green cards are not actually green (they used to be, hence the name). They have a greenish hue these days, but color aside, green cards are little driver’s license looking photo ID cards.
  • Despite the “permanent” part of the status they represent (note that status and an issued document are not one in the same), green cards are not indicative of indefinite legal status in the United States. They expire, some have conditions, and LPR status can be lost, forfeited, or revoked.
  • Obviously, green card holders are not able to legally vote in elections.
  • Also obvious, green card holders are NOT citizens, though by meeting certain conditions and completing the naturalization process (a minimum of five years in the making, three if they marry a U.S. citizen), they may become citizens.

Why is this distinction so important? Despite the Internet’s misgivings,  a “pathway to legalization” does not mean sweeping reform that magically creates millions of new American citizens. It means granting legal, trackable, taxable status.

And there you have it. You are now free from the burden of abusive immigration rhetoric.

Follow Kemberlee on Twitter @kemberleekaye