On Thanksgiving: The Poetry and Prose of Immigration and the Statue of Liberty

By Jerry Kammer on November 27, 2019

As we approach Thanksgiving, this most American of holidays, I'd like to share a commentary I just found concerning that most American of poems, the Emma Lazarus sonnet whose final lines are engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. As every schoolchild knows, they begin with "Give me your tired, your poor".

In the politics of open-borders advocates, those lines from "The New Colossus" have committed the United States — morally if not legally — to accept all those who feel compelled to migrate to our country.

For millions of Americans, as a Lazarus biographer has written, the poem "transformed the statue into a beacon of generosity and welcome for all oppressed peoples."

But a 1982 report from the Senate Judiciary Committee that I found this week provides a dissenting view that is worthy of attention.

The report concerned an early version of the legislation that would be enacted four years later and dubbed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, or IRCA. In contrast to the expansive romanticism of Emma Lazarus, the report gives voice to the caution and pragmatism that enabled Congress to send IRCA to the White House for President Reagan's signature.

In language that today would provoke howls of protest from immigration-rights activists, the report asserted that "the ability of the American people to welcome aliens into their day-to-day life experiences has limits."

The report was skeptical about the 1980s relevance of the lines that Lazarus wrote a century earlier. Observing that the poem is "cited in nearly all discussions of U.S. immigration policy," it dissented from the implicit call for open borders.

It observed: "In an earlier time, the nation could welcome millions of newcomers, many of whom brought few skills, but did bring a willingness to work hard. ... Immigration can still greatly benefit America, but only if it is limited to an appropriate number and selected within that number on the basis of immediate family reunification and skills which truly serve the interest of a highly developed nation."

In the summer of 2017, the debate over the poem took dramatic form in a White House confrontation between Stephen Miller, a senior policy advisor to President Trump, and CNN correspondent Jim Acosta. The clash occurred as Miller defended a Republican proposal to establish a point system that would select many immigrants on the basis of criteria including education, training, and English-language ability.

Acosta, whose father immigrated from Cuba in 1962, objected that the proposal was not consistent "with American tradition when it comes to immigration." He added, "The Statue of Liberty ... doesn't say anything about speaking English or being a computer programmer." He observed that because of the poem, the statue has "has always been a beacon of hope."

Miller countered by challenging Acosta's grasp of the statue's history and its connection to the poem. Indeed, the poem's last lines weren't inscribed on the base of the statue until 1903, 20 years after it was written.

I think both Acosta and Miller got it wrong. Acosta interpreted the poem as a sacred national commitment on immigration policy. He badly overplayed the open-borders card. Miller failed to understand that the poem is far more than a romanticized irrelevance.

But Acosta was right in his observation, however imprecisely made, that the poem has powerfully influenced Americans' belief that our country should welcome immigrants, especially the oppressed.

But Miller was right in insisting that immigration should be managed not according to a poetic vision from 1883, when the United States was an industrializing country of 50 million and needed vast numbers of unskilled workers, but rather in accord with the present-day needs of a technologically advanced country of more than 320 million.