WASHINGTON – At every opportunity, President Bush has said – emphatically – that the legislation he favors to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws does not provide amnesty to those in the United States illegally.
On Tuesday, he said it did – and his comment prompted a rare acknowledgment from the White House that the president had made a mistake.
Speaking to government officials and others in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House, Bush said: “You know, I’ve heard all the rhetoric – you’ve heard it, too – about how this is amnesty. Amnesty means that you’ve got to pay a price for having been here illegally, and this bill does that.”
What? It provides amnesty? That’s what the president’s critics have been saying all along.
Bush’s words began to light up the blogosphere just as the Senate was about to vote on moving ahead with the immigration legislation. As soon as it became clear the errant language was making news, the White House press office moved to tamp down the mini-furor.
Before lunchtime, the president’s spokesman, Tony Snow, dispatched a “what-the-president-meant-to-say” e-mail to reporters, stating the obvious: “Today, in speaking about comprehensive immigration reform, President Bush misspoke.”
Repeating the president’s words, Snow added: “This has been construed as an assertion that comprehensive immigration before the Senate offers amnesty to immigrants who came here illegally. That is the exact opposite of the president’s long-held and often-stated position.”
Indeed, at least 18 times in the past two months Bush has spoken publicly about the legislation, noting each time that, in his view, it would not grant amnesty. As recently as Saturday, Bush made that point, saying in his weekly radio address that the legislation would resolve the status of the estimated 12 million people here illegally.
“Under this bill, these workers will be given an opportunity to get right with the law. This is not amnesty. There will be penalties for those who come out of the shadows,” the president said.
On Tuesday, he got it backward.