A conservative Republican lawmaker with a hard line on immigration doesn’t normally attract attention for uttering the word “amnesty.”
But that all changes when it’s someone like Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, saying that the Senate comprehensive immigration bill’s provision allowing undocumented immigrants to legalize their status is not amnesty.
“I don’t use that word,” Grassley said at an Iowa town hall meeting in response to a member of the audience who asked “Do you consider the Senate immigration bill amnesty?”
“I use the word legalization because it’s a little bit different than what we did in 1986,” said Grassley, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration. “I would call the immigration bill of 1986 amnesty because there wasn’t any conditions to it.”
The Senate bill, he said, puts conditions ahead of legalization.
Grassley was a vocal critic of the Senate bill, which he voted against, because he said it did not do enough to improve border security.
The Senate passed the far-reaching bipartisan bill in late June.
The measure includes border security, workplace enforcement and a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants as long as they meet a strict set of criteria. But the majority of House Republicans remain opposed to any path to legalization, denouncing it as amnesty, and creating concerns that legislators will be unable to craft a compromise bill.
Grassley’s move to make a distinction between amnesty and the legalization plan that the bill provides was significant because it went to the heart of one of the main points of contention between opponents and supporters of the measure.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who was part of the so-called “Gang of Eight” – four Republicans and four Democrats who drafted the bill – launched a media campaign before the Senate passage of the bill to rebut claims that it offered amnesty, or rewarded lawbreakers.
The bill requires those seeking legalization to register with the government, submit fingerprints, pass a background checks, pay fines, stay employed and learn English. Only after 13 years would they be able to turn their conditional legal status to legal permanent residency, commonly known as getting "a green card."
Rubio has stressed the long and difficult process toward legalization for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, and said that is why it is “earned” and not amnesty.
"We're not awarding anybody anything. All we're doing is giving people the opportunity to eventually earn access to our new, improved and modernized legal immigration system," said Rubio earlier this year.
Immigration advocates quickly seized on Grassley’s comments.
America’s Voice, a lobby group that favors more flexible immigration laws, sent out a press release titled: “BREAKING: Senator Grassley Confirms Senate Immigration Bill Not Amnesty.”
“While anti-immigrant blowhards like [Rep.] Steve King continue to rail against all immigration reform as ‘amnesty,’” the statement said, “Grassley’s insistence that the Senate bill is not that puts him closer to immigration reform supporters like Jeff Flake and John McCain, who said just yesterday [Wednesday] that the Senate bill’s 13-year wait and strict penalties precludes the legislation from being amnesty.”
“As Grassley himself said, ‘Putting conditions ahead of legalization’ —which is what the Senate bill does, via onerous requirements like a 13-year-wait, the payment of back taxes, learning English, and other provisions—‘would preempt the use of the word amnesty.’”
Those who favor strict immigration enforcement expressed bewilderment over Grassley’s comment.
“The notion that ‘amnesty’ is different than “legalization” is novel,” said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, which lobbies for tighter enforcement. “He’s got a new approach I suppose, but it sounds like a distinction without a difference.”
Stein added that “amnesty is forbearance from prosecution for a range of criminal offenses, in this case.”
“It is also a ‘reward’ when the alien receives a benefit he/she would not have been able to obtain but for having broken the law,” Stein said. “The Senate bill is both an amnesty and a reward. Amnesty’s definition doesn’t turn on what happens downstream at the border. It turns on how the alien is dealt with substantively.”
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.