Leave Emma Lazarus Out of It

In the latest SNL-worthy scrum from the White House briefing room, CNN’s Jim Acosta successfully taunted presidential adviser Stephen Miller by arguing that the new Trump immigration proposal violated traditions enshrined by the Statue of Liberty and in particular the Emma Lazarus poem (“Give me your tired … ”) associated with it.

Let’s leave aside Miller’s responses. Like the rest of what he said about the proposal to slash legal immigration by half and concentrate the remainder on high skilled workers, Miller diluted droplets of truth with oceans of demagoguery. Acosta’s simplistic provocation, however, does offer an occasion to think about how immigration gets discussed these days.

Since it was erected in 1886 the Statue of Liberty has served as an emblem of what the United States has to offer the world, liberty as a form of enlightenment. That was the intent of its creators, and that’s why she holds a tablet inscribed with the date of the Declaration of Independence. Millions of immigrants knew they had arrived at a spiritual as much as a geographic destination when they saw the robed woman, her crown and torch.

The poem, “The New Colossus,” was added later. Originally written for an auction that raised funds for the statue’s pedestal, the now famous words did not reach the statue until 1903 and then only on bronze plaque placed inconspicuously in a stairway landing. It was meant at a tribute to the writer, a socialite who was also an advocate for Jewish refugees and who died young. The statue and the poem only gradually became prominent symbols of generous immigration policies, reaching an apotheosis with the 1986 centennial celebrations, a Reagan-era corporate extravaganza.

Some years ago I wrote a piece for the Washington Post that gets dragged out on days like Wednesday because I opined that the poem “can safely be removed, shrouded or at least marked with a big asterisk. We live in a different era of immigration, and the schmaltzy sonnet offers a dangerously distorted picture of the relationship between newcomers and the new land.”

My objections start with the depiction of immigrants, “tired … poor … wretched refuse … the homeless, tempest-tost.” That description applies to some refugees for sure, but not to most immigrants. They are adventurers who get up and go when times are tough or take off just because they think can get a better deal somewhere else. They are rarely the poorest of the poor because it takes resources to migrate. Sadly, the most afflicted, as Lazarus described them, are the folks who get left behind.

Even the noble phrase, “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” distorts reality. Sure, lots of people have come to the United States for political reasons, and that is an important component of our immigration history. But, many, many more have come here because they saw an opportunity to improve their social and economic well-being, and many others have come just because they wanted to be with family who had already made the trip. We need to be OK with that. Immigration for love or money is perfectly respectable. Immigration by people who have made money and want to make more is honorable. We do not limit immigration to the desperate or the persecuted and never have. It is important that we have channels to welcome them, but humanitarian migration is just one aspect of our policies.

The Lazarus vision becomes more problematic when poorly informed commentators like Acosta invoke it as a historical basis for immigration policy. Acosta provoked Miller by contending that the Lazarus poem embodies an “American tradition” of welcoming immigrants regardless of their qualifications. In truth, for as long as the Statue of Liberty has stood in New York harbor, the United States has had policies to block immigration by people considered too poor to make it on their own, or too sick or who are morally, politically or socially unfit. Lazarus wrote poetry not policy.

At different times, we have embraced tinny patriotic expressions like “we are a nation of immigrants” to either exclude and embrace foreigners. In what has become perhaps the most polarized sector of our insanely polarized politics, appeals to patriotic values have become a staple for all sides. That may be one reason we are stuck in this very repetitive battle. Immigration policies need to be reinvented by every generation for the needs of that generation. Like any national endeavor that requires sacrifice, the management of migration requires public support based on self-interests, contemporary realities and articulable future goals—as well as enduring values.

Someday we might get to a reasonable and productive debate over immigration policy. I don’t know how, but for sure it is not going to happen by looking to Lazarus alone for inspiration.

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