Bad Poetry Makes for Bad Policy

By Mark Krikorian on July 6, 2009

Roberto Suro, a former WaPo reporter turned professor at USC, is no restrictionist but he is a contrarian on immigration. His 1998 book Strangers Among Us is anathema to the open-borders crowd, with its assertion that stopping illegal immigration is necessary to improve the lives of low-skilled immigrants already here and its confidence that enforcement is actually feasible.

In that same vein, Suro had a piece in yesterday's paper encouraging the immigration debate to move beyond Emma Lazarus and the Statue of Liberty. He outlined the basics of the argument, which anyone with a whit of sense should already know, that the Statue of Liberty has nothing to do with immigration, that Lazarus's poem is so tangential to the statue that it can't even be described as an afterthought, that relatively few of today's immigrants are really "homeless," let alone "tempest-tost." His article should be required reading in every junior-high-school class studying immigration (not to mention every newsroom).

There's a related point he alludes to but doesn't address explicitly: Much of the way we think about immigration today is shaped by the experience of Irish coming here in the mid-19th century and Jews at the turn of the 20th century. These two immigrants streams are the only major ones that bear any resemblance to the poem's "tired," "poor" and "huddled masses" fleeing for their lives, never to look back. For sure, the Irish and Ashkenazim have had an outsized influence on America, if no other reason than they helped shape the character of the newly industrializing cities of the East Coast, but their numbers are a small share of our nation's historical immigration flow. And yet too many open-borders folks see in every one of today's immigrants someone fleeing the Potato Famine or being chased out of Anatevka by the Cossacks.

This doesn't necessarily translate to a specific policy position. You could, for instance, take from this insight the lesson that our immigration policy needs to be more like that of the Persian Gulf states, where large numbers of foreigners come and go to work but aren't incorporated into our society (I've argued against that view here and elsewhere). Or you could conclude that we've outgrown the mass-immigration phase of our nation's development and it's time to move on. But in either case, we need to disenthrall ourselves from the mythology of the Mother of Exiles.