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Tough talk: Why immigration reformers say 'get right with the law'

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Byron York,Immigration,Paul Ryan,Harry Reid,John Boehner,Mexico

Supporters of immigration reform have carefully poll-tested the words they use to advocate an overhaul of the nation's immigration system. "The language on this stuff is really important," says one expert who's been intimately involved in the work.

In general, advocates of far-reaching reform have found that the toughest-sounding words work best. Words and phrases that sound as if the government might confer some sort of benefit on illegal immigrants don't test well. "Legalization," for example, is open to all sorts of interpretation and could suggest a gift from the government. Same with "path to citizenship." And obviously "amnesty" is a no-go.

Reform supporters have also discovered that anecdotes highlighting the struggles of illegal immigrants don't work. If a man has entered the United States illegally, many audiences aren't terribly sympathetic even if he has worked in a hot kitchen 12 hours a day to send money back to his family in Mexico. So some advocates have dialed back on the anecdotes.

What does work? Words and phrases that focus on the law. "Rule of law," for example, is quite effective. But perhaps the most effective phrase for reform advocates now is "get right with the law," as in requiring currently illegal immigrants to comply with strict legal requirements as a condition of allowing them to live openly in the United States.

"Get right with the law" is popping up a lot in the immigration debates. For one thing, it was included in the House Republicans' 804-word statement of principles released Thursday: "Our national and economic security depend on requiring people who are living and working here illegally to come forward and get right with the law."

By including that phrase, the authors of the GOP principles were making a nod to the dozens of reform advocates who have adopted "get right with the law" recently. Some examples from the last few days and months:

• "We have to have a way to give an opportunity for those folks to earn a way to get right with the law while adhering to the rule of law." — Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, Jan. 31

• "[There] ought to be a rule-based system so that we secure the border, interior enforcement, while we fix and get people right with the law without producing amnesty…" -- Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Jan. 30.

• "Let's legalize the 11 million undocumented workers in this country, give them a work permit, allow them to travel, allow them to get right with the law…" -- Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, Jan. 11.

• "Pay a fine, go through a background check, pay their debt to society — but then after that, get right with the law." — National Immigration Forum Executive Director Ali Noorani, Jan. 6.

• "We've seen no bill providing a way for the 11 million living in our communities … to get right with the law and earn citizenship." — Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, Dec. 12.

• "When you've got an issue that would … allow folks who are here illegally to get right with the law … you shouldn't be looking for an excuse not to do it." -- President Obama, Nov. 13.

• "It doesn't make sense to have 11 million people who are in this country illegally without any incentive or any way for them to come out of the shadows, get right with the law …" — Obama, Oct. 24.

• "The Senate passed a common-sense, bipartisan bill to fix the broken legal immigration system, strengthen our borders and require undocumented people to get right with the law." -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Oct. 28.

• "This measure will also help 11 million people — people tired of looking over their shoulders and fearing deportation — to get right with the law … " — Reid, Sept. 18.

• "I am committed to finding a way for individuals to earn a legal status in our country and get right with the law …" — Republican Rep. Jeff Denham of California, Oct. 4.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner