Immigration Politics and the Statue of Liberty


Immigration Politics and the Statue of Liberty by Bill Britton

DO THE WORDS OF EMMA LAZARUS (“GIVE ME YOUR TIRED, YOU POOR…”), inscribed on a plaque within the Statue of Liberty’s base, still convey the same power today as when they were written in 1883? Like the title of Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus,” the United States has evolved from being a land occupied by Native Americans and scattered immigrants, eking out a hardscrabble existence, into the most powerful nation on the globe.

Just as, in a sense, we are all Africans, having migrated from the original homeland some 60,000 years ago, we are all migrants the world over, no matter how much we might identify ourselves as American, Iraqi, Chadian, Chinese, or any other national or ethnic group, black or white and all shades in between. The end result is a myriad of cultures, some of which consider themselves superior to others because of supposed innate, exceptional qualities. These range from India’s Brahmins, to England’s old aristocracy, and to various other “chosen people,” among others. The most egregious example is Nazism’s mythical Aryan race of supermen.

The tendency of a culture to become exclusionary is exemplified by the anti-immigrant bias exhibited by some in the United States today. Politicians use the issue of immigration when catering to a particular segment of the electorate. Undocumented immigrants are commonly labeled “aliens,” a term that sets them apart from full-fledged Americans. Others describe them as “invasive” or part of an “alien invasion,” something akin to kudzu or zebra mussels. They lose their humanity and become mere objects to be manipulated for political gain.

The basis of most anti-immigration rhetoric is fear, a common emotion in racial rhetoric as well: fear that your job will be lost to a migrant, fear that your home’s value will suffer, or fear that your neighborhood will become crime-ridden—three of the more common assertions of which there are many. The problem is that migrants are rarely the direct cause of any of these realized fears. The direct causes involve a lack of landlord concern, corrupt political systems, predatory and opportunistic employers, and the failure to support infrastructure and support systems in poorer communities and in those migrant enclaves hidden from view.

The one issue that has gained political leverage is the loss of jobs to non-Americans of all hues, documented or not, in-country or offshore. Wal-Mart once emblazoned “Made in America” across its trucks and on its product labels, until it realized that merchandise could be outsourced at a fraction of the cost of goods produced domestically. “Made in China” is now the company’s mantra. The high-achievers in high schools and universities are disproportionately foreign-born or first-generation Americans. Thus, there is an undercurrent of resentment toward anyone who exudes “foreignness” in much of U.S. society, which engenders a “Fortress America” mentality: e.g., build a higher fence along the Mexican border.

Both undocumented immigrants and those with work permits do dominate certain sectors of the workplace: farming, construction, landscape maintenance, and home-care, among others. But most entry-level American workers shun these jobs because they are low-paying and, in their eyes, low-status.

When I was in high school in the 1950s, certain of these jobs were gobbled up by my classmates and me—how else were we to buy gas for that old Ford or Chevy? Few of high-school age today will cut lawns or chop weeds, not even in their own yards.

The easy answer, according to some politicos, is to deport the 11 million illegal immigrants and thus free up jobs for Americans, an answer that only gins up anti-immigrant sentiment. Others have proposed a “pathway to citizenship” with requirements like learning basic English and satisfying the conditions spelled out the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Whether trucking illegal immigrants across our southern border, or creating a pathway to citizenship, funds will have to be appropriated by Congress, something many members are loath to do. And so, the endemic inertia that rules Washington will obviate any immediate solution to a problem that has been called a “crisis,” but one which is of our own making, politicized—and distorted—by both Republicans and Democrats. Perhaps the relevant part of Emma Lazarus’ sonnet should be read at the opening of each session of Congress:

“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!”

Bill Britton

Bill Britton is a currently a contract editor for The Johns Hopkins University Press and has worked for other firms on scientific and environmental issues.

5 thoughts on “Immigration Politics and the Statue of Liberty

  1. “They lose their humanity and become mere objects to be manipulated for political gain.” This applies more to Planned Parenthood who sells ‘fetal tissue’ aka ‘babies with beating hearts’ for money rather than the those who willfully come into this country illegally – they are commiting a crime and should be called ‘illegal immigrants or aliens’. That’s what they are!

    A few years ago I gave a talk on the two key principles of our freedom and liberty in the US – Private Property Rights and Parental Rights. Part of what I said follows:
    Property rights can be used to frame conservative positions on many current issues from gun rights to immigration. For instance, stopping illegal immigration is the epitome of protecting citizens’ property rights because it is protecting America. No sovereign nation can withstand the massive dilution of its traditions, values and culture through unlimited immigration and survive. We have a moral obligation to our founders to protect our republic and preserve what is uniquely American.

    We do not have a moral obligation to accept all immigrants nor is the current immigrant the moral equivalent of those of the past. The first immigrants were the founders and pioneers who created this sovereign nation through immense sacrifice and with divine guidance formed a united republic. Later those who came to our shores and populated our cities and towns did so legally and with the desire to assimilate. They sacrificed to get here and tried to make a go of it through learning the language and hard work. If they didn’t succeed, they went back home (or they died); they didn’t go on welfare.

    As Thomas Jefferson originally wrote…”that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and Property”…owning private property is a God-given right and is the bedrock of our society. To take the ability to own, use and control private property away from the citizenry is to destroy our nation and our way of life. To take our property in the form of land or treasure and give it to a non-citizen is even more damaging to the nation.

    Today I would add:
    • For a number of years after the large influx of immigrants thru Ellis Island, the federal government permitted very few new immigrants to enter the country in order that the cities and towns would have time to assimilate the influx. We controlled our borders and set limits on immigration.
    • Today, only the US and Canada, of all the developed nations of the world, designate ‘anchor babies’ as citizens of their countries upon birth on their soil.
    • The Mexican Constitution states that children born outside of Mexico of 1) Mexican parents, of 2) a Mexican father or children born of 3) a Mexican mother and “unknown father” are Mexican citizens and not the citizens of the countries in which they are born.
    • Both the US and Mexico are obviously not enforcing their constitutions!

    • Interesting comment, although at no point did I take a position on Planned Parenthood, nor would I, except to say that the issues involved should be left to the individual’s conscience and not be part of a political agenda.

      As far as illegal immigrants themselves, most of their influx is a response to the laws of supply and demand: that is, there is high demand for domestic workers, farm hands, and construction workers that is not satisfied by the available native labor pool. I use the term “available” because few U.S. workers are happy with $80 or less as a daily wage.

      Both large and small firms and the wealthy (in the case of domestic help) are eager to hire illegals for the obvious reasons of lowering costs and their willingness to work hard. I live in a neighborhood under construction and see Hispanics at work every day. There are no “slackers” and I suspect that some are here illegally.

      My grandparents came here as domestics. When in high school, I worked on estates on Long Island with DPs (displaced persons) from central Europe and other immigrants. They knew, and I came to respect, the dignity of labor, something that has been lost on the electronic generation.

      But neither political party seems willing to address the problem head-on, so you see the rhetorical extremes of granting amnesty or building higher border walls. The fact remains that some 11 million are here, and short of filling cattle cars and sending them south, they’ll be here a while.

      • You suggested that calling people who commit a crime by their actual name is de-humanizing. My suggestion is that what Planned Parenthood does is de-humanizing and not the calling of an illegal an illegal. Many of our grandparents and generations before came as LEGAL immigrants through the proper channels and had to work hard because no one was there to give them free healthcare, housing, food and cash. Not sure what your point is there.

        You and I see the ‘problem’ you want to hit head on differently. I see the Obama administration putting the word out to people in Honduras, El Salvador, etc. telling them that they can come to our country and then arranging buses, housing, food for them when they come through Mexico in droves. That is the problem. I remember a black mom in one city where the were buses were dropping off illegals exclaiming, “What about OUR children?” “What is this going to do to our schools and programs?”

        I think that building a wall to stop the flow and enforcing the laws and deporting those in jails and who are found through the criminal justice system will be a start. Once we control the entry point, we can re-organize the work permit system and control who is in our country and where they are. When we start doing that, two things will happen – wages will necessary start increasing for migrant workers who come only to work here AND there will be less and less incentive to try and come illegally. Particularly if you can’t get social service/welfare beneifts the minute you cross the border – or have a child and call it a citizen.

        If we stop incentivizing criminal behavior and close the borders, amazing things will happen. And the labor market and wages will find their balance (particularly if we stop artifically manipulating the wage base by lobbying for higher minimum wages – you can’t have it both ways.) To blame all big business and the wage issue for the immigration problem is a strawman argument.

    • To paraphrase the opening line of Kipling’s “Ballad of East and West”:
      “OH, Left is Left, and Right is Right, and never the twain shall meet . . .”

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