Statue of Liberty Turns 125 as Immigration Debate Rages

On the 125th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, it’s important to remember what that great lady stands for as immigration is under assault across America.

Like many a woman of a certain age, the Statue of Liberty is about to have some “work” done. It’s a birthday present from her old man—Uncle Sam—and it’s scheduled to start on Oct. 29, one day after the 125th anniversary of her official dedication on a chill gray day in 1886. But unlike all her New York sisters who don sunglasses, skip off to the Hamptons, or stay in bed watching early Coen brothers movies, Lady Liberty will just have to stay put.

That’s a good thing; we need her to stick around.

Lady Liberty needs to be seen—it’s good for civics classes and it’s good for tourism. But more than being seen, she needs to be heard. The words Emma Lazarus gave her—“Give me your tired, your poor, /Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore”—are in danger of being drowned out by a cacophony of other voices: from Arizona, Alabama, Utah, Georgia, Indiana, and South Carolina; voices from podiums and meeting halls and police precincts; voices speaking openly and stridently, and muttering with nearly silent lips.

These were the voices, minus a few buzzwords and plus a few anti-Chinese slurs, that turned immigration into a federal issue in 1875. The previous year in San Francisco, a young, newly arrived Chinese woman named Chy Lung was arrested along with 20 other women by the city’s sheriff for failing to supply a bond of $500 in gold—each. This steep entry fee was to protect California not from “lewd and debauched” women, as Chy Lung and her cohort were called, but from babies—the babies that would be born to them once they married Chinese men already living and working there. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel F. Miller ruled that California’s law was extortionary and unconstitutional; states might pass laws regarding “paupers” and criminals, but otherwise, immigration was a matter for the federal government because it was fundamentally a matter between nations, not between states and those who broached their ports.

Emma LazarusBy Esther Schor368 pages. Schocken. $21.95.

From the inception of a federal immigration service, there has been little agreement over what its role should be. In 1875 it was housed not in the Department of State, as one might imagine from Chy Lung v. Freeman, but in the Department of the Treasury. There it remained until 1902, when it was relocated to the Department of Commerce and Labor. Four years later, when the Basic Naturalization Act was passed, the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization emerged, and since then, except for 20 years between 1913 and 1933, the two functions have been united in one Immigration and Naturalization Service. In 1940 this agency was shifted from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice, where it remains. But recently, the INS changed its name to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, as if to say, make no mistake—immigration no longer leads inevitably to naturalization; now U.S. citizenship is primary, with immigration a secondary matter.

Is it any wonder that two administrations have failed to overhaul our immigration laws? And into the breach have come, one by one, the states—Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia leading the assault—seeking not to overhaul immigration laws but to overturn civil liberties. The Department of Justice, its offensive against immigrant criminals and labor violators having failed to impress, has been playing defense, catch-up, finger-in-the-dike.

So now it’s the Statue of Liberty, rather than the Immigration Service, that is getting an overhaul. Like many a woman of a certain age, she’s insecure, as she awaits reinforced stairways and fireproof elevators. They’re feeling insecure, too, in Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia; from those states, the skies and the seas and the deserts seem to be no longer full of promise, but rather full of interlopers, terrorists, pirates. The technologies that make our world smaller also make our eyes sharper and more watchful; the lives of immigrants, once they are through our airports and in our communities, are in focus as never before. Insecurity is what makes Hispanic parents in Alabama keep their children home from school, and onion pickers in Georgia pull up stakes and head for the Carolinas. And when resources are limited, even generous spirits become mean and unwelcoming.

Writing her sonnet in 1883, Lazarus knew, even before the statue was erected, that the controversies around immigration would always be with us: Whom do we need? Whom can we tolerate? How do they become Americans? Who are we—as individuals, as municipalities, as states, and as a nation—when we ask these questions? Perhaps she knew, in the way poets sometimes do, that Uncle Sam would never be good at answering them. But thanks to Emma Lazarus, the “Mother of Exiles” supplies the best answer we may ever have, lifting her torch high above states and cities, to welcome exiles, dreamers, and all the hapless Chy Lungs of the world.