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!
We’re all familiar with those words written by Emma Lazarus over a 100 years ago and emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty. It’s embedded into our culture and routinely cited in our political discourse.
And to immigration enthusiasts, those words aren’t mere poetry, but scripture for how America defines itself.
In the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive orders cracking down on migration from some Muslim-majority countries and other hard-line measures in relation to immigration, liberals have deployed Lazarus’s words ad nauseam to argue how un-American Trump’s policies supposedly are.
— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) January 25, 2017
At least one of these executive orders should include the destruction of the plaque in the Statue of Liberty https://t.co/xlB204P8eN
— Mazel Tov Cocktail (@AdamSerwer) January 25, 2017
— Madeleine Albright (@madeleine) January 25, 2017
This argument is all too common when immigration is debated in America, with those who employ the poem for the purpose of declaring it is apart of our national creed to forever leave our door open for whomever wants to come to our shores. Lazarus’s words go from just some poem to a text that’s equivalent to the Declaration of Independence in the eyes of liberals.
That’s simply not the case.
Lazarus was neither a Founding Father nor a towering figure in American history. Her words have never been law and her poem is not attached to the Constitution. It’s simply the expression of one 19th century socialist. The poem wasn’t even placed on the Statue of Liberty when the monument was unveiled in 1886, which of course was a gift from France to the United States.
The idea that Lazarus’s poem is somehow equivalent to the Constitution, the Declaration or the writings of the Founders is ridiculous. Nor has American migration resembled the picture Lazarus describes in her writing.
Settlers in the colonial era did not find sanctuary in the New World, but a land filled with hostile natives, deadly diseases and harsh living conditions. It was no place for tired, huddled masses to find a loving embrace.
As a nation-state, America has striven to attract those imbued with the qualities that would make them a great citizen, not necessarily the “wretched refuse” of the Old World. We have certainly been a shining beacon to those yearning to breathe free, but as Teddy Roosevelt — who served as president when Lazarus’s poem earned a plaque on the Statue in 1903 — exhorted, “There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all.”
Roosevelt meant that immigrants would be welcome only if they fulfilled their obligation to thoroughly assimilate to America’s culture and way of life — not the other way around. To Americans of Roosevelt’s era, there was an understanding that this nation was great because of the people who lived here, laid the foundations for our culture and passed on our values to future generations.
For liberals who gush over “The New Colossus” sonnet, America is only great because of its newcomers. Implied in all the hysteria around Trump’s executive orders is that immigration is the core principle of the United States. Any restrictions placed on it is an affront to American values, which happen to be best expressed by one Emma Lazarus.
There is no real culture for immigrants to assimilate to either, contrary to Roosevelt’s demands. America is just about abstract principles that the whole world can subscribe to — no matter their allegiances or willingness to speak English.
What is most concerning about the recitation of the Lazarus poem as the final word of immigration is how it imagines America as defined by the eternal outsider. We can only be truly America if we welcome the stranger in our midst with no hesitation. The new arrivals are needed to replace the bad-old citizens, who are apparently less American than the immigrants who just arrived.
There’s a kind of inverted tribalism at work in this rhetoric. The out-group (potential immigrants) is seen as superior to the in-group (citizens), and America is defined by its acceptance of the out-group into the fold. (RELATED: Dear Paul Ryan: America Was Actually Founded On An Identity)
One of the many interpretations of Trumpism is that of the in-group asserting itself against those they perceive as outsiders — otherwise known as the normal form of tribalism. There’s certainly elements of that apparent in Trump’s embrace of the slogan “America First,” which frightens liberals and neoconservatives who believe America should commit itself to being the guardian of liberal internationalism over its own “narrorw,” national interests. (RELATED: Nationalism Beyond Trump)
That commitment to liberal internationalism is based on the belief that America is an idea, not a nation. To put America first is somehow un-American under this notion.
The huddled masses — representing a myriad faiths, ethnicities and allegiances — are celebrated because they counteract the idea America has a national identity inseparably rooted in culture, history and principles dating back to the first English settlers.
At one point, Lazarus’s poem might have been just a reminder of the multitudes of people our country has managed to assimilate over the years.
Now it serves as a cornerstone text in the cultural war over America’s identity.