The term “amnesty” is used to describe the government’s act of forgiving a person for something he did wrong. For example, amnesty can refer to the government’s forgiveness of illegal immigrants (also known as undocumented migrants) for crimes they committed to enter a country. The government can also forgive people who haven’t paid their taxes once those payments have been made. To explore this concept, consider the following amnesty definition.


Definition of Amnesty


  1. An official pardon issued to those who have been found guilty of an offense against the government .


Late 16th century          Greek (amnēstia)

Tax Amnesty

When individuals are threatened with jail time for tax evasion, they can pay their taxes, penalties, and other fees to avoid jail in certain situations. This is called “tax amnesty.” Tax amnesty programs may be run at the federal or state level. Generally, individuals who have already submitted their tax returns, or who are under investigation by a collection agency, are not eligible for tax amnesty programs.

Amnesty for Illegal Immigrants

Amnesty for illegal immigrants, or undocumented migrants, refers to the government’s forgiveness of crimes related to improper practices immigrants may sometimes use during the immigration process. One such practice includes forging documents so as to be able to enter a country or get a job.

In 1986, the United States implemented the Immigration Reform and Control Act. This law included new rules to be followed when verifying a job candidate’s background before hiring that candidate (employment verification). It is also an example of amnesty for illegal immigrants because this legislation provided a way to forgive undocumented migrants who may have committed a crime to become American citizens.

Amnesty International

Amnesty International is a non-profit organization dedicated to furthering human rights across the globe. Amnesty International was founded in 1961, and its initial focus was to highlight political prisoners’ stories to educate the public. The mission of Amnesty International has since grown to include:

  • Advocating for the abolishment of the death penalty
  • Working to stamp out discrimination
  • Representing the rights of migrants and refugees

Amnesty International has locations in over 60 countries throughout the world. The organization is primarily funded through individual donations, though it has received financial assistance from governments and other non-profit organizations as well.

Amnesty International Lawsuits

At any moment, Amnesty International has several lawsuits ongoing. These Amnesty International lawsuits fight for the rights of those who have suffered gross punishments that, by U.S. standards, would have been deemed unconstitutional. Summaries of many of Amnesty International’s lawsuits are posted to their website so that those who wish to contribute financially to the cause can see the good that they do with the money they are given.

Take, for example, the case of Raif Badawi. In May 2014, Badawi was convicted of violating Saudi Arabian technology law, and “insulting Islam,” after writing and publishing several articles on his website, “Saudi Arabian Liberals.” Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes, a 10-year travel ban, and a lifetime ban from appearing in any form of media. Badawi was initially charged with “apostasy,” which is the crime of abandoning one’s own religion. It is also punishable with the death penalty.

Another example of one such Amnesty International lawsuit involves a man by the name of Obaidullah. Obaidullah has been in prison for 13 years, 8,000 miles away from his family and without a trial since being captured in a night raid by U.S. Special Forces in July 2002, based on an anonymous tip. His daughter was born two days before he was taken into custody, and the first time he was able to make contact with her was when she was 11 years old.

When Obaidullah was first taken into custody, he was abused by the guards. For instance, his hands were often chained above his head, and he was forced to defecate on himself because they denied him bathroom privileges. He was subjected to a litany of horrors at the hands of the guards, and he was threatened with punishments like this “for the rest of his life” if he did not cooperate with interrogators. He was transferred to the Guantanamo Bay holding facility in 2002, where he has remained ever since.

According to Amnesty International, the U.S. government has stated from the day Obaidullah was picked up that his detention is part of a flaw in the “global war on terror.” The government allegedly uses this as an excuse to continue to hold Obaidullah, and detainees who are going through similar situations, until the U.S. determines that there are no hostile threats to the country.

The Amnesty Act

The Amnesty Act of May 22, 1872 was a federal law that worked to reverse the penalties that the Fourteenth Amendment had imposed upon former Confederates. Specifically, the Fourteenth Amendment had imposed voting restrictions and disqualifications related to holding office amongst most of those individuals who rebelled during the American Civil War. The Amnesty Act forgave these penalties.

The original law that included all of these penalties was passed by Congress in May of 1866. The Amnesty Act, when imposed six years later, ultimately affected over 150,000 former Confederate troops who had participated in the American Civil War.

Amnesty Example Involving DACA

An example of amnesty in a Supreme Court case can be found in the case of United States v. Texas from 2016. Here, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) started the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) plan back in 2012. Along with the plan came a set of rules that allowed prosecutors to decide when to enforce the relevant immigration laws.

In 2014, the DHS expanded the DACA program which, in turn, made more people eligible for it. This new program was known as the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program or, more simply, DAPA.

Texas, along with several other states, filed a lawsuit to stop DAPA from being implemented. In addition to arguing that its implementation was both impulsive and arbitrary, they also argued that it violated the Administrative Procedure Act and the Take Care Clause of the Constitution (Article II).

The district court ruled in the states’ favor, as did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Both courts agreed that the states had the right to file their lawsuit, and that they had a high chance of success on their claims. When the case reached the Supreme Court level, the Court had the following questions to consider:

  • Do states that provide benefits under DACA have the right to sue because the new guidelines would then lead to even more people being eligible?

Was the DAPA program truly as impulsive and arbitrary as the states had claimed?

  • Did DAPA truly violate the Administrative Procedure Act?
  • Did DAPA truly violate the Take Care Clause of the Constitution?

Ultimately, the Court decided that yes, the lower court was correct in its initial ruling. In a deadlocked 4-4 decision, the Court simply wrote: “The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Death Penalty – A punishment wherein a person who is convicted of committing a serious crime is put to death, typically via a lethal injection or the electric chair.
  • Immigration – The act of a person leaving his or her home country so as to live permanently in another.
  • Tax Evasion – The illegal nonpayment, or underpayment, of taxes.