NEW YORK - The word


- at the core of the debate over a proposed immigration overhaul - has been a politically charged term throughout its history, often applying to acts hailed by supporters as magnanimous and assailed by critics as weak-kneed.

It's a word with flexible meanings. There were sweeping amnesties after the English and U.S. civil wars; nowadays the term is sometimes used when authorities invite the public to turn in unregistered guns or overdue library books without penalty.

Critics of the immigration deal in Congress have used amnesty in a pejorative way to describe plans to grant legal status to millions of illegal immigrants. They could obtain a renewable visa allowing them to stay in the country indefinitely and, after paying fees and fines, get on track for permanent residency.

"Any plan that rewards illegal behavior is amnesty," said Rep. Brian Bilbray (R., Calif.).

It's debatable whether the plan meets the technical definition of amnesty, which traditionally involves a no-strings-attached offer to restore the status of innocence to a certain class of people accused of crimes against the state.

The current friction over amnesty has dismayed supporters of the proposed immigration compromise, such as the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights group. They see it as an attempt to put them on the defensive and control the debate.

"The folks on the anti-immigration side have made it a poisoned term, so almost anything you do, short of building walls and hiring border enforcement guards, they'll slap the amnesty label on it," said Cecelia Munoz, La Raza's senior vice president for public policy.

"For folks trying to have a conversation that's accurate, you end up having to use words really precisely so you don't play into this poisoned atmosphere," Munoz added. "If we're asked, 'Do you support an amnesty?' the answer is no. Then you describe what you do support."

President Andrew Johnson's 1868 declaration directed at Confederate war veterans is perhaps the most prominent amnesty in U.S. history. President Jimmy Carter's pardon of Vietnam War draft evaders after his inauguration in 1977 is sometimes described as an amnesty, but it did not declare innocence.

Carter was criticized by veterans groups and conservatives who opposed the pardon and by left-wing groups upset that he did not include deserters and convicted antiwar protesters.

The concept of amnesty dates back at least to ancient Greece. In England, a general amnesty was offered as part of the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. South Africa used the term during the 1990s, when its Truth and Reconciliation Commission - despite criticism from two flanks - sought a public accounting of abuses committed during the era of white-minority rule.

"One side felt there was nothing to apologize for," said Paul van Zyl, a South African lawyer who is vice president of the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice. "For the other side, there was no accountability. And there was a middle-of-the-road spectrum who viewed it as a pragmatic and wise solution."

Van Zyl noted that amnesty had lost favor recently among human-rights groups as it became associated with efforts to spare human-rights violators from trials.

This isn't the first time amnesty has been a focal point in wrangling over immigration.

A 1986 law signed by Ronald Reagan established a one-year amnesty program for illegal immigrants who had been in the United States at least four years. An estimated 2.7 million people took advantage of the provision.

"It's a vastly different political environment now than in 1986," said Dan Stein, executive director of Federation for American Immigration Reform and a leading critic of proposals to accommodate illegal immigrants.

"The reason amnesty in the immigration debate has such a negative context is a sense that these cheaters are gimmicking the system and taking advantage of us," Stein said. "They're getting more than an amnesty, they're getting a reward.. . . It violates every fundamental notion of fairness."