The New Colossus
By Emma Lazarus
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!”
This, of course, is the poem inscribed on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. It is a stirring, moving testament to the ideal of and belief in the United States as a haven for newcomers. The last few lines are quoted frequently; they come up in almost any discussion of immigration.
Yet today, terrorism and wars and natural disasters are creating not only a crisis of refugees, but also a climate of fear. In that climate, some Americans seem to think Lady Liberty ought to lay down her “torch of world-wide welcome” in favor of laying bricks to build a wall. In that climate, I’m not sure that glibly repeating Emma Lazarus’s words is all that helpful.
When she wrote this poem in 1883, Miss Lazarus was helping desperate Jewish refugees who were fleeing Russian pogroms. They had seen family members killed, their homes burned, their way of life destroyed. They truly were tired, poor, and homeless. And in the eyes of the nation driving them out, they truly were “wretched refuse.”
But focusing on these familiar phrases from “The New Colossus” makes it sound as if the only people coming here are those that no one else wants. It encourages us to see, not only refugees, but all immigrants only as people who need our help. Only as victims. Only as desperate. Only as homeless. Only as recipients of our charity. From there it’s just a short step to seeing them as ignorant, incapable, and pitiful. From there it’s just another short step to seeing them as unworthy, other, and unacceptable.
This perspective asks only half of what has to be a two-part question: “What can this country do for these immigrants?” It misses the other essential side: “What can these immigrants do for this country?”
And immigrants who have something to give the United States are not limited to those with professional degrees, high-tech knowledge, or other in-demand-now skills.
They might be like my great-grandfather, Christopf Emme, who came to the United States in 1904. He was a German peasant, a widower with six children. When they landed in Baltimore after 13 days at sea in steerage class, grubby and bewildered, they may well have looked like “wretched refuse.” They certainly were “tired and poor”—Christopf had $17.25 to his name. He couldn’t even afford to pay for his family’s steamship tickets.
Who bought those tickets? Christopf’s older brother William. Another poor German peasant who had come to the United States 20 years earlier. In just one short generation, he had prospered enough to not only support his own six children, but to fund the immigration of his brother’s family.
Like his brother before him, Christopf became a landowner—something he could not have achieved in Germany at that time—by proving up on a homestead. He and his children became self-sufficient American citizens. Their children, many with college degrees, became teachers, farmers, engineers, professionals, and business owners. By now Christopf has several hundred prosperous, thriving—and taxpaying—descendants all over the country.
Immigration, legal and illegal, is not a simple issue with a simple solution. I certainly don’t have one. I do know that I’m baffled by a system under which millions of people can come in and stay illegally for decades. Pew Research estimates the number of illegal immigrants at 11 million. That’s over 3% of our population and 5% of our workforce. Those numbers strongly suggest we have space for these people, jobs for these people, and a need for these people. So why are we not working together to find ways to let them be here legally?
I also know I don’t want to live in a country surrounded by walls to keep the rest of the world out. I don’t want to see us become so inward-looking, suspicious, and hostile to new people and new ideas that nobody even wants to come here. That’s not a country represented by the welcoming ideals enshrined at the Statue of Liberty. We’ve never fully lived up to those ideals, of course, but they still are an important part of our identity. We call ourselves with pride a “nation of immigrants” because immigration has shaped our culture.
The third thing I know is this: We can’t arrive at any reasonable solutions to the problems of immigration by considering only people’s needs or circumstances at the time they want to come here. We have to look at least one generation, or even more, into the future.
To help us do that, it might be good to focus on another of Emma Lazarus’s phrases. One that doesn’t get the same attention as the tired, poor, homeless, wretched masses. That phrase is “tempest-tossed.” When people come here in need and desperation, it’s because their lives have been overtaken by storms. Storms like political upheavals, terrorism, natural disasters, war, and violence. Storms that have brutally disrupted their lives.
Storms that, ultimately, are temporary. Throughout our country’s history, many people have arrived here as desperate refugees. Many others, like my ancestors, were not fleeing from disaster but simply looking for better opportunities. If we could trace their descendants, my belief is that by the second generation, it would be hard to tell which families were which.
I’m not suggesting at all that we throw our doors open wide to anyone and everyone who cares to show up. That makes no sense. But when we discuss who and whether and how to let people in, let’s not only consider their immediate circumstances. Let’s also consider their future children and grandchildren, whose ability to thrive and prosper can help the United States continue to thrive and prosper.
It would weaken and harm this country if we allowed Lady Liberty’s torch to become a warning beacon or a stop light behind a looming wall. Instead, let’s keep it as that lamp beside a welcoming door.