Image from a Nov. 30, 2002 Justice Department filing by Barbour Griffith & Rogers
In statements Tuesday morning, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour denied supporting “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, and his former lobbying firm, Barbour Griffith & Rogers, declared that it had “never advocated amnesty for illegal aliens.”
But neither Barbour nor his firm denied the fact that they worked for Mexico on extending Section 245(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 2001, a provision that was called “amnesty” by critics at the time because it would provide a path to citizenship for certain undocumented workers living in the United States, if they paid a small fine that acknowledged they had broken the law. Barbour’s contract with Mexico had been disclosed at the time in documents filed with the Justice Department.
Since the late 1990s, the term “amnesty” has had no fixed definition in American political discourse. Many on the right consider “amnesty” to be any immigration solution that allows undocumented immigrants to escape established punishments for their crimes, including a mandated return to their country of origin. By contrast, supporters of immigration reform have argued that the term “amnesty” does not apply if there is some acknowledgment of misdeeds, like a fine, as was proposed in the Section 245(i) extension.
If anything, the current debate over the definition of “amnesty” adds sharp relief to just how much has changed within the Republican Party over the last decade. Back in 2001, when Barbour’s firm was hired by Mexico for $35,000 a month to work on the Section 245(i) issue, among other issues, the provision was supported by some self-identified conservatives inside the Republican Party, including President George W. Bush. In a roll call vote on March 12, 2002, 92 Republicans and 182 Democrats voted to extend Section 245(i). Texas Rep. Dick Armey, who now runs the FreedomWorks, an early backer of the Tea Party movement, hailed the passage of the provision at the time. “The House vote,” he said, “sends a message to the world that our country will continue to be a beacon to all who love freedom and the opportunity to live, work and raise a family.” Other conservatives voting for the extension of Section 245(i) in 2002 included Rep. John Boehner, who has since become Speaker of the House; Rep. Tom DeLay, who was then majority whip; and Rep. David Dreier, who is now the chairman of the Rules Committee.
But at the same time, there was significant opposition within the Republican ranks to the 245(i) provision, and the word “amnesty” was regularly used to criticize it. Though the extension passed the House, the Republican caucus opposed the measure by 123 to 92.
One reason I’ve been successful as Governor is that I’m plain-spoken and use common sense. I tell people what I think, not what I think they want to hear. Before there can be immigration reform, we must secure our borders. Only after that can any reforms be achieved, and those can’t include amnesty. Everybody knows we are not going to put ten or twelve million people in jail and deport them. Once the border is secure, we should develop a responsible guest-worker program and it can’t include amnesty.