The Old Colossus
Stephen Miller’s Right About One Thing—America Has a Long Tradition of Rejecting Immigrants
But by Miller’s new standard, many, if not most, of the immigrants who did reach our shores in the past century and change would have been turned away.
When President Trump’s policy adviser Stephen Miller reminded CNN’s White House correspondent Jim Acosta that Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus,” enshrined at the base of Miss Liberty was “actually not part of the original statue,” he was correct as far as he went. Frederic-Auguste Bartoldi’s bronze monument was created in 1876 as a gift from France to mark the centennial of American Independence. It wasn’t until a decade later that the statue was dedicated after a popular subscription campaign to pay for the pedestal.
In the intervening period a sea change had occurred in the national origins of America’s immigrants, shifting from natives of Northern Europe to those from the Continent’s Southern and Eastern reaches. In the 40 years between 1880 and 1920 more than 20 million immigrants arrived in this country. Millions of Italians, Jews and Slavs arrived at the port of New York alone, most of them bearing little more than memories of a woeful past and dreams of a hopeful future.
It was this mixed flood of striving, struggling humanity that Emma Lazarus evoked in her sonnet inscribed on a plaque at the statue. It was Miss Liberty’s torch that was the first thing “the huddled masses” encountered on reaching our shores. Whatever Bartoldi intended, the torch had become a beacon of hope for them. They, and their heirs, would repay the nation in full. Original Intent had been overtaken by history.
There is a subtext to Miller’s admonition: That the Statue of Liberty does not celebrate a land of immigrants but is rather a memorial to republican virtue. The object is to divorce the idea of liberty from foreign taint. Implicit in this message is that our liberties are threatened by alien incursions. It is at the heart of a nativist agenda that harkens back to the anti-Irish Know Nothing agitation of the 19th century and continued spasmodically throughout our history.
The Gilded Age saw the growth of the Immigration Restriction League which tried to impose literacy tests on immigrants as a means of excluding the unwanted aliens. (This came at virtually the same time that racist legislatures in the South were utilizing literacy tests as a means of keeping blacks from the polling booths.) Although thwarted by presidential vetoes, nativists finally succeeded in passing a literacy test for immigrants in 1917, a prologue to the racially motivated quota system of the early 1920’s that stifled immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. It wasn’t until 1965 that Congress replaced nationality quotas with a system that allowed Americans to sponsor relatives from abroad. The result over the next 50 years was a preponderance of immigrants arriving not from Europe but Latin America, the West Indies, Asia and Africa. Which prompted a recrudescence of restrictionism.
President Trump’s current proposal to cut legal immigration in half is in keeping with this history of nativist resurgence. In fact, Miller, by embracing the idea that immigrants be required to speak English, is doing the former restrictionists one better. They had only insisted that immigrants be literate in at least one tongue, not limited to English. Miller has upped the ante.
By his standard many, if not most, immigrants to our shores would have been turned away.
It was assumed that they would learn English once they arrived, as most did. But not all. Swedish immigrants to Minnesota in the 19th Century insisted on maintaining church and Bible in their native tongue. Immigrants to the Lower East Side learned English in fits and starts, the younger ones adapting more readily than their elders. Italian coal miners read newspapers such as Il Martello and Jewish garment workers pored over The Forverts. The foreign-language press was a staple of immigrant communities many of whose members had little or no English It was their children who fully assimilated.
Prescott Hall, a leader of the Immigration Restrictionist League in the early 20th century, outraged by President Taft’s veto of an immigration bill imposing literacy tests on immigrants, declared: “To hell with Jews, Jesuits and steamships.”
Updating this a bit to replace the aforementioned with Mexicans and Muslims, we have a fairly concise picture of Donald Trump’s immigration policy. His campaign rhetoric to “get rid of them” leaves little doubt about his feelings on the subject. By this stance Trump is both channeling and stoking the fears of an aggrieved segment of working-class whites who feel threatened by a demographic wave. It is in keeping with a long tradition of auguries warning against the national lifeblood being contaminated by the virus of immigration. As the social scientist Robert Mayo Smith succinctly put the case in 1890: “It is scarcely possible that by taking the dregs of Europe we shall produce a people of high social intelligence and morality.”
What followed was a nativist campaign vilifying immigrants: Italians were a criminal element. Jews were subversives. Both brought disease: Italians were said to be responsible for a polio epidemic, Jews for tuberculosis—variations on an earlier deprecation of the famine-fleeing Irish, accused of “rum and Romanism” as well as bringing typhus on their coffin ships. Demonization was critical to the nativist agenda.
The specifics changed with the times and the targets but the nature remained the same.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 effectively ended immigration from China and barred Chinese from becoming citizens. It was not repealed until 1943. By then the U.S. Government was rounding up the Japanese-American Nisei and sending them to internment camps during World War II. “Jobs” provided the rationale for the first and “Security” for the second, but at their heart was racism. All three still obtain.
Trump’s Muslim ban was invoked in the name of security but no terrorist has emerged from the seven nations he proscribed. Rather, four of the 19 terrorists of 9/11 came from the Trump-friendly regimes of Egypt, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates; the other 15 came from Saudi Arabia, where President Trump was recently regally entertained and where he’s had business dealings. None of the 9/11 terrorists slipped across the Mexican border. They arrived by air bearing visas, and they had a good enough command of English to accomplish their mission.
As for protecting American workers, most economists see no link between curbing immigration and creating more jobs at home. Rather, they tell us that immigration increases economic growth. Trump nevertheless insists that his proposed legislation “demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first.”
But how does his proposal do so? By favoring high-skilled immigrants he would bring in the very people who would be taking jobs from American citizens. The immigrants brought in to Florida by Disney on H1-B visas replaced American workers who were forced to train them as they were sent packing. Trump’s reasoning defies its own logic. The occupations that most immigrants fill today are low-skilled jobs in agriculture, hotel maintenance (including at many Trump properties) and domestic service that most Americans don’t want. Trump is comparing apples and oranges.
While Disney workers may be displaced by high-tech immigrants, few of them would want to take jobs as sugar cutters in the Florida cane fields. How many Americans are willing to volunteer for work as grape pickers, laborers in the dangerous meat-packing industry or care-givers to the very old and the very young? As Mayor Koch once said, without illegal immigrants, the hotel industry in New York would collapse. These low-skilled immigrants are not taking work from Americans.
There is a complete disconnect in Trump’s reasoning. Americans have been losing jobs because of technology, globalization and outsourcing. A reasonable response is retraining, infrastructure and business incentives; not exclusion. As for Trump’s professed compassion for American working families, he might do better to display it by supporting a higher minimum wage and curbing the union-busting proclivities of his minions.
So if jobs and security as restrictionist rationales don’t hold up under scrutiny, what’s left?
I suspect Americans would be offended at Stephen Miller’s symbolic disparagement of Lady Liberty as a beacon that brought opportunity to their own forebears. But for many older Americans, our national myth says the earlier “European” immigration was a good wave. The problem is with the new immigration wave, after 1965. Although these later immigrants, like their predecessors, are strivers who through their efforts, and their children, contribute to the growth of America, they are different.
Collectively, they hail from populations of darker hues. Whatever their success at assimilating, this creates a cultural conflict that breeds suspicion and resentment among some of the native-born. Trump’s ploy to favor the high-skilled among them, although it poses a real economic challenge, is reassuring culturally, since it allows in the relatively “sanitized” and keeps out the unwashed—although the latter pose less threat to the jobs that Americans would compete for.
Trump should be congratulated in his candor for at last going public with the not-so-hidden agenda of restrictionists these many years. It was not illegal immigrants they were after, but all of them. Illegality was a stalking horse to curb immigration without being called a racist. With Miller’s call to cut down on legal immigration, too, the fig leaf has now been removed.
In this context it might be well to remember the words of one immigrant about his fellow passengers’ first view of the Statue of Liberty: “women weeping for joy, men falling on their knees in thanksgiving.”
Tyler Anbinder, in his important study, “City of Dreams,” writes: “The term ‘liberty’ perfectly encapsulated the reasons they had come to America. Liberty from hunger, liberty from fear, liberty from violence, liberty to pursue any occupation, liberty to live where they chose, and political liberty—these were the motives that had driven this extraordinary mass of humanity to the United States.”
Jack Schwartz is a former book editor of Newsday.