Give Me Your Tired, Your Huddled Masses – Not Really

Alan Cross, author of the DownshoreDrift blog, reminded me of something really striking in his post today about the increasingly strident immigration debate. I had forgotten about these words etched on the Statue of Liberty:

 “…Give me your tired, your poor,
   Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
   The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
   Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
   I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

As Cross points out, “Donald Trump is upset because he says that we are not getting the “best and brightest” and all of the really “smart people.” He claims to be a great American. He claims to be a conservative. But, the actual American, Conservative values are summed up in Emma Lazarus’ words. The Real, Historic America wants the tired, poor, huddled masses and wretched refuse. The Real, Historic, Conservative view believes that America is a great place – even a transformative place – where people can come from all over the earth and work and make a life for themselves. We are a nation of immigrants and many of our ancestors came here with nothing but dreams for the future – dreams that they fought, worked, and died for to see come true.”

Of course, we shouldn’t get too starry-eyed about the past. Many Americans, after their families had been here for one or two generations, conveniently forgot how their ancestors got here and began looking down their noses at those who were just arriving. But, my impression is that those prejudices were less a part of post-World War 2 America than at some previous times. Maybe it was just easier to take a friendly view of immigrants between 1935-1990 because, according to statistics from the MIT Center for International Studies, immigration was low compared to several previous periods in American history.

And, who knows, Lazarus who wrote those words in the late 19th century, might have felt less generous if she had realized that the USA would become a modern welfare state attempting to provide a social safety net for everyone, including illegal aliens. We live in a different time with a different set of challenges. I agree with those who say that immigration, particularly the illegal variety, is an unfair burden on American taxpayers. I oppose amnesty for those who came here illegally.

But, there are a lot of options for moving forward that don’t require denigrating immigrants or ignoring the realities of how a large number of illegal immigrants are contributing to the good of America.

Lazarus’s words inspire me. They remind me of an attitude and outlook that helped make America great. I wonder if fans of Donald Trump’s immigration rhetoric want to erase those words, which have welcomed immigrants to New York for over a century, and replace them with something like, “If you’re not smart, go back to where you came from”? I wonder how many of us would be U.S. citizens today, if that had been the policy when our ancestors came here?