Do the words of Emma Lazarus (“Give me your tired, your poor . . .”), inscribed on a plaque within the Statue of Liberty’s base, still convey the same power today as when they were written in 1883? Like the title of Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus,” the United States has evolved from being a land occupied by Native Americans and scattered immigrants, eking out a hardscrabble existence, into the most powerful nation on the globe.
Just as, in a sense, we are all Africans, having migrated from the original homeland some 60,000 years ago, we are all migrants the world over, no matter how much we might identify ourselves as American, Iraqi, Chadian, Chinese, or any other national or ethnic group, black or white and all shades in between. The end result is a myriad of cultures, some of which consider themselves superior to others because of supposed innate, exceptional qualities. These range from India’s Brahmins, to England’s old aristocracy, and to various other “chosen people,” among others. The most egregious example is Nazism’s mythical Aryan race of supermen.
The tendency of a culture to become exclusionary is exemplified by the anti-immigrant bias exhibited by some in the United States today. Politicians use the issue of immigration when catering to a particular segment of the electorate. Undocumented immigrants are commonly labeled “aliens,” a term that sets them apart from full-fledged Americans. Others describe them as “invasive” or part of an “alien invasion,” something akin to kudzu or zebra mussels. They lose their humanity and become mere objects to be manipulated for political gain.
The basis of most anti-immigration rhetoric is fear, a common emotion in racial rhetoric as well: fear that your job will be lost to a migrant, fear that your home’s value will suffer, or fear that your neighborhood will become crime-ridden—three of the more common assertions of which there are many. The problem is that migrants are rarely the direct cause of any of these realized fears. The direct causes involve a lack of landlord concern, corrupt political systems, predatory and opportunistic employers, and the failure to support infrastructure and support systems in poorer communities and in those migrant enclaves hidden from view.
The one issue that has gained political leverage is the loss of jobs to non-Americans of all hues, documented or not, in-country or offshore. Wal-Mart once emblazoned “Made in America” across its trucks and on its product labels, until it realized that merchandise could be outsourced at a fraction of the cost of goods produced domestically. “Made in China” is now the company’s mantra. The high-achievers in high schools and universities are disproportionately foreign-born or first-generation Americans. Thus, there is an undercurrent of resentment toward anyone who exudes “foreignness” in much of U.S. society, which engenders a “Fortress America” mentality: e.g., build a higher fence along the Mexican border.
Both undocumented immigrants and those with work permits do dominate certain sectors of the workplace: farming, construction, landscape maintenance, and homecare, among others. But most entry-level American workers shun these jobs because they are low-paying and, in their eyes, low-status. When I was in high school in the 1950s, certain of these jobs were gobbled up by me and my classmates—how else were we to buy gas for that old Ford or Chevy? Few of high-school age today will cut lawns or chop weeds, not even in their own yards.
The easy answer, according to some politicos, is to deport the 11 million illegal immigrants and thus free up jobs for Americans, an answer that only gins up anti-immigrant sentiment. Others have proposed a “pathway to citizenship” with requirements like learning basic English and satisfying the conditions spelled out the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Whether trucking illegal immigrants across our southern border, or creating a pathway to citizenship, funds will have to be appropriated by Congress, something many members are loath to do. And so, the endemic inertia that rules Washington will obviate any immediate solution to a problem that has been called a “crisis,” but one which is of our own making, politicized—and distorted—by both Republicans and Democrats. Perhaps the relevant part of Emma Lazarus’ sonnet should be read at the opening of each session of Congress:
"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!"