Emma Lazarus’s famous poem, The New Collossus, written on the plaque on the Statue of Liberty is thought to capture the essence of what it means to be an immigrant by many Americans.
Roberto Suro, professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, in his guest editorial in Sunday’s Washington Post, suggests that this overly romanticized poem has nothing to do with our immigration policies, past or present, or the founding of this nation and that we need to scrap the poem.
Some key points in Professor Suro’s piece include:
1. Most immigrants aren’t huddled masses
2. Most immigrants come here for economic reasons, not political or political asylum.
3. Emma Lazarus had special interest in immigrants
4. Emma Lazarus wrote her poem to help with laggard fund raising for the base of the Statue of Liberty.
5. Lady Liberty is really about democracy, not sheltering the ‘huddled masses yearning to be free.’
6. The plaque was added to the base in 1903, posthumously, by one of Lazarus’s friends to honor Lazarus, long after the statue was dedicated.
7. The Golden Door of immigration slammed shut in 1924.
You get the idea…
One doesn’t get the idea that Suro opposes immigration. He, himself, is a descendent of people who have fairly recently immigrated. He further explains:
…during the Great Depression and World War II, it became popular to herald immigrants’ contributions in the interests of national unity, and the statue became part of the lore. The poem was rediscovered and popularized as part of unsuccessful campaigns to open the United States as a refuge for Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, a new version of Lazarus’s cause. In 1945, with that point moot, Schuyler’s plaque was moved to a prominent spot near the pedestal’s entrance.
The immigration door remained shut after the war, and the share of the population that had been born abroad dropped to historically low levels as the Europeans who had come through New York Harbor died. By 1970, the foreign-born made up less than 5 percent of the population, a third of what their share had been around the turn of the century.
More romancing the statue occurred during the centennial celebration in 1986 when Ronald Reagan was president. He “spoke of his belief that “divine providence” had made the United States a home for “a special kind of people from every corner of the world, who had a special love for freedom.” Unabashed, he said, “Call it mysticism if you will.”
So what was Suro’s point?
In another decade, about one-quarter of the population under the age of 18 will be the U.S.-born children of immigrants, legal or otherwise, and what happens to them in our classrooms, workplaces and neighborhoods, much more than what happens to their parents, will determine whether this whole enterprise succeeds.
So what can we learn from Emma Lazarus, or from Ronald Reagan, for that matter?
Look back with caution is my advice. Bad poetry makes for bad policy. Whether you believe that current immigration flows are too big, too small or just right, a mystical attachment to the “Mother of Exiles” can lead to treacherous misconceptions. It can delude us into thinking that we shouldn’t have to do much to help folks succeed once they get here.
While Lady Liberty has stood immobile in New York Harbor, immigration has risen and fallen and risen again. Lazarus — and Reagan, even more so — dreamed that the unchanging values she symbolizes give us an innate talent for being a nation of immigrants. Wrong then and wrong now. Like Americans of every era, we’ll be held to account for how we manage the door and for what happens to immigrants and their offspring when they live among us.
We need to honor those values, but that is just the start. It was easy to idealize immigration when the doors were shut, but we know better now. We know that it’s hard work for all involved, them and us.
Professor Suros gives us a great history lesson and he blows holes in much of our Liberty mythology. He makes us take a realistic look at our immigration history and gives some sober words for the future—words that don’t boil the issue down to black or white but more to the what “is” and what “will be “ that will ultimately tell the tale.
Please read this guest editorial yourself. It is well-worth the time, just to acquire a fresh perspective.