It’s time to send Emma Lazarus home. That may not be fair to her. All she did was write the sonnet “The New Colossus,” from which the lines, put on a plaque and installed at the Statue of Liberty years later, were taken:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
What was she thinking, and who was she writing about? She may have had in mind the Jews fleeing from the pogroms in Russia, but not many of them had come to the United States by 1883.
And why were her lines selected for the Statue of Liberty? Who promoted Emma Lazarus? And does her description fit the typical immigrant to America?
Not even a poetic license issued in 1883 should have allowed Lazarus to insult the hard-working immigrants by describing them as tired, huddled, wretched, and refuse. Refuse!? The condescension reeks.
America has since its early days been the new home of the energetic, the brave, the daring, the fearless, the entrepreneurial, the risk-taking. Though the immigrants Lazarus knew may have been poor — few immigrants came with much money — certainly not all of them were wretched. They came seeking opportunity. And they found it. They worked hard. There was no welfare program to sustain them. They built communities all over this land. They built America.
And the hard work of those early immigrants, and the insults of Lazarus’s lines, should make us think about the kind of immigration policy we want today.
Whom is our immigration policy meant to benefit? The potential immigrant or America?
Does anyone have a right to come to America? Do we have an obligation to take in anyone who wants to come? Are we obliged to take all refugees from war-torn areas? Some refugees? Which refugees? Who decides?
In theory, we want only the best and the brightest. That’s what President Trump, quite sensibly, has said, thereby earning the usual derogation from the Resistance. He wants to change our immigration system to one based on merit. “I want people to come in on merit. I want to go to a merit-based system. Actually two countries that have very strong systems are Australia and Canada. And I like those systems very much, they’re very strong, they’re very good, I like them very much. We’re going to a much more merit-based system.”
President Trump has said that he wants immigrants to commit to not receiving any form of welfare for their first five years in the country. That’s hardly an original thought. The Immigration Act of 1882 made several categories of immigrants ineligible for citizenship, including people likely to become public charges.
We in America (and elsewhere) are fixated now on immigrants from terror-infected countries, for obvious reasons. But we need to think more comprehensively about immigration. And certainly the immigrants we allow to become citizens should at least, as President Trump has said, be good for America. The minimum official requirements for naturalization are being able to read, write, and speak basic English; having a basic understanding of U.S. history and government (civics); being a person of good moral character (that would eliminate the Clintons); and demonstrating an attachment to the principles and ideals of the U.S. Constitution (that would eliminate most of the Democratic Party).
One aspect of America that immigrants should understand is that America has a heritage and a character: its heritage is European, with a particular emphasis on fidelity to the rule of law, and its character is the product of Western Civilization and the Enlightenment. Multiculturalism is not the culture of America. Indeed, multiculturalism cannot, by definition, be a culture at all.
Lazarus, in her sonnet, misses the boat. Immigrants to this country, if oppressed in their native countries, may appear to be tired, poor, wretched refuse. But by coming to America, they wipe away that past and get the chance to lead a new life, to be bold and resourceful.
It’s too late to send Emma Lazarus home now, and not only because she died in 1887, before the plaque with her words was installed at the Statue of Liberty, but also because she was already home when she died, at the age of 38, in New York City, where she was born.
But it’s not too late to correct the false impression made by the plaque that bears her lines, not too late to put up a new plaque (even if we let the old one remain) that will teach Americans here, and would-be Americans everywhere, that America is a land of opportunity. But the opportunity is for the brave and resourceful: to rise early, work hard, and trust in Providence.
Daniel Oliver is chairman of the board of The Education and Research Institute, and a director of Citizens for the Republic, founded by Ronald Reagan in 1977, and of The Pacific Research Institute, of which he is a former chairman. During the Reagan Administration Mr. Oliver served as Chairman of the FTC and General Counsel of the Departments of Education and Agriculture. Mr. Oliver was Executive Editor and subsequently Chairman of the Board of William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review. Mr. Oliver worked in William F. Buckley Jr.’s campaign for Mayor of New York City in 1965 (and ran for the New York State Assembly that year) and served as Director of Research for James L. Buckley’s successful campaign for the U. S. Senate in 1970. Mr. Oliver is a graduate of Harvard College. He served in the U. S. Army from 1959 to 1962. He can be contacted via TheCandidAmerican.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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