Let’s Be Careful About Our Use of “The New Colossus”

Ellis_Island_arrivalsAs I write this, I am listening to Chris Cuomo on CNN talking about immigration. Cuomo, of course, is the grandson of Italian immigrants.  He is criticizing Donald Trump’s RAISE Act for its proposal to cut legal immigration in half and limit Green Cards to people who speak English and are “highly skilled.”

Cuomo, and many other critics of the RAISE Act (including his CNN colleague Jim Acosta, who mixed it up on Wednesday with Trump adviser Stephen Miller), like to quote the words of the Emma Lazarus poem, “The New Colossus.”

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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!”

The Lazarus poem certainly reflects the founding ideals of the United States of America. The United States has long been an “asylum for mankind.”  This country, when it is at its best, has taken-in the “tired,” the “poor,” and the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Like Cuomo, I would not be here today if this was not the case.  Like Cuomo (and Stephen Miller and possibly Trump himself), I would not be in this country if the RAISE Act was in place at the turn of the 20th century when my unskilled, non-English-speaking Italian and Slovakian ancestors arrived.

But if we address this issue historically, it is fair to say that I probably would not be here either if my grandparents tried to migrate between 1930s and 1960s.

For example, the 1924 Immigration Act (Johnson-Reed Act) was an isolationist measure to limit immigration from certain ethnic groups, including Italians, Jews, and other Southern and Eastern Europeans.  It also restricted most Africans and banned Middle Eastern and Asian immigration completely.  These restrictions were lifted by the Immigration Act of 1965 (Hart-Cellar Act).

And then there was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.  This act barred the entry of Chinese laborers to the United States.

And let’s not pretend that most “native” Americans were happy about all these immigrants coming into the country.  Every great wave of American immigration coincided with nativist resistance and attempts at restriction.

In the end, “The New Colossus” appeals to our better selves.  But let’s be careful before we say that its message has been applied consistently in the long history of American immigration.

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