The immigration reform bill recently passed by the United States Senate offers, according to the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), a rather onerous path to citizenship:

Under the Senate bill, most unauthorized immigrants will face a waiting period of 13 years or more before they become citizens; a criminal background check; work requirements; documentation demands; English-language and citizenship exams; and employment eligibility verification. In addition, they will be required to pay significant fees and penalties that could total more than a month’s worth of their gross yearly income.

A host of pundits and politicians on the right not only refer to the fulfillment of this list as amnesty, but are also too quick to use that word to block and/or malign any move toward comprehensive immigration reform. The language we use to talk about crime and punishment varies widely—amnesty versus pardon; acquit or exonerate; civil settlements or criminal culpability—and the differences reflect not just the nuances of the justice system but whose lawbreaking we’re talking about. Just because the bill got through the Senate doesn’t mean we’ve heard the last angry utterances on amnesty. The bill now moves to the House, a body much more prone to hurl that word at undocumented workers, hoping it will stick. So in the interests of fairness I’ve dredged up a few other instances of amnesty to give House members a more equitable set of targets.

Richard Nixon, a known burglar who also committed crimes against the Constitution he swore to protect, was given amnesty, as well as a fat pension, as if he were a Fortune 500 CEO. It was called a pardon rather than amnesty, but after stripping away the semantics it boils down to the same thing.

Ronald Reagan also got amnesty for Iran-Contra, which in a nutshell was the illegal sale of arms to Iran in an effort to fund a paramilitary group in Nicaragua known for a bevy of human rights abuses. Reagan secured his amnesty by simply uttering the words “I can’t recall.”

Marc Rich was in Switzerland when indicted for tax evasion and illegally trading oil, also with the eternally-embargoed Iran. An immigrant from Belgium, he refused to return to his adopted country to confront the charges, and was eventually pardoned by Bill Clinton. Man those white-boy high-wage earners sure stick together, don’t they? Maybe if we paid undocumented workers more money we could squeeze some of them under this heaving blanket of amnesty?

A simple twist of linguistics make it much more acceptable to sentence a poor person to prison for abusing the evil-sounding heroin than it is to incarcerate a wealthy one for being addicted to the oh-so-innocuous “pain medication.”

Rush Limbaugh was given amnesty after his arrest in 2006 for illegally obtaining prescription opiates. So was Cindy McCain, wife of Arizona Senator John McCain. In 1993 Cindy “avoided charges” (there are those damn semantics again) for defrauding a doctor into writing illegal prescriptions that were then used to support her opiate addiction. This one drives me loopy because, at the height of her fraud, forgery, and drug use in 1992, I was serving 2.5 years in an Arizona State prison merely for attempting to possess a minute quantity of non-prescription opiates. But a simple twisting of linguistics make it much more acceptable to sentence a poor person to prison for abusing the evil-sounding heroin than it is to incarcerate a wealthy one for being addicted to the oh-so-innocuous “pain medication,” even though these drugs work in very similar ways.

Corporations are routinely given amnesty for a plethora of crimes, which leads one to believe that if they are indeed people, then they are undoubtedly rich people. From 1993 until 2006 the pharmaceutical company Bayer aggressively marketed a drug called Trasylol. Used in hundreds of thousands of surgeries, Trasylol was supposed to prevent excessive bleeding. But in 2006 studies revealed that it was actually killing patients. Despite this Bayer (with a healthy thumbs-up from the FDA) kept the drug on the market for another two years, during which time, according to 60 Minutes, “it’s estimated [that] Trasylol was contributing to the loss of one thousand lives a month.” That’s 24,000 deaths. But one can’t say that Bayer was given full amnesty for so many negligent homicides: two of its employees were suspended.

In April of 2010 an explosion in Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia killed 29 coal miners. Massey’s Chairman and CEO at the time, Don Blankenship, a coal lobbyist, had been cited on numerous occasions for safety violations at the mine in question. An independent investigation released a year after the accident stated that “the responsibility for the explosion…lies with the management of Massey Energy. The company broke faith with its workers by frequently and knowingly violating the law and blatantly disregarding known safety practices.”

The current anti-immigration trope dictates that amnesty for undocumented workers is tantamount to “rewarding lawbreakers,” but I guess it all depends on exactly who’s breaking the law. Opponents of amnesty are quite noticeably not annoyed at the subsequent exoneration of both Massey and Blankenship. I thought they’d be marching in the streets when, in December of 2011, the U.S. Attorney announced that a record civil settlement in excess of $200 million was levied against the new owners of Massey Energy, thus relieving the corporation of any criminal liability. Money murmurs so soothingly.

And of course we barely need to mention the biggest beneficiaries of blanket amnesty: those fine fellows down on Wall Street who, by engaging in reams of disreputable and frankly illegal practices that included, but was not limited to, subprime and predatory lending, fraudulent underwriting, and erroneous pricing of risk, caused the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. The overall cost of this crisis is incalculable, but a report released by the U.S. Department of Treasury in April of 2012 estimates that we lost 8.8 million jobs and $19.2 trillion in household wealth. Yet not only was Wall Street awarded amnesty, but a taxpayer-financed bonus check. Of course when it’s the moneyed classes on the receiving end we use the language of rescue: it wasn’t a handout but a bailout.

And the amnesty continues apace. When in October of 2010 it was discovered that big banks like J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America were fraudulently signing and in some cases forging tens of thousands of mortgage documents in an effort to evict homeowners, many cried out for justice, but not one banker has been arrested, let alone jailed.

It seems the only people in these United States not eligible for amnesty are poor people.

And this is just a smattering of the innumerable cases of amnesty that occur daily, even hourly, in the United States and across the globe. Nixon and Reagan were just two shady presidents; Marc Rich was not the last tax evader; Limbaugh and McCain represent oodles of wealthy (and perpetually un-incarcerated) junkies; Bayer is a typical pharmaceutical company; Don Blankenship just one of an army of energy lobbyists, and Bank of America a prominent example among dozens of crooked financial institutions. I could just have easily dredged up crimes against George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Elvis, GlaxoSmithKline, British Petroleum, or HSBC. Indeed, it seems the only people in these United States not eligible for amnesty are poor people, with undocumented workers topping the list. Their only crime was sneaking across a border—all but invited by rich white guys seeking cheap labor.

So when the word amnesty surfaces, let’s at least make an effort to put it into perspective. Are we really supposed to believe that the most flagrant form of illicit behavior in America is that undocumented workers are picking our peaches?

Matthew Parker

Matthew Parker's work has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, and The Rumpus, among others. He is also the author and illustrator of the graphic memoir Larceny in My Blood: A Memoir of Heroin, Handcuffs, and Higher Education.

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