A few years before her death at 38, Emma Lazarus donated a short sonnet to raise money for the construction of the pedestal that would eventually prop the Statue of Liberty into the sky.
The sonnet called the planned statue “The New Colossus,” assuring everyone in the 19th century that Lady Liberty was indeed a new wonder of the world.
“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.”
Ellis Island, of course, was a primary gateway for millions of immigrants looking to find a better life in a country, itself built on immigration. Yet even when Lazarus wrote those words in 1883, the United States wasn’t exactly a beacon of hope for those coming in from around the world.
In 1875, Congress passed the Page Act, which prohibited “undesirables” from coming to the country. Those undesirables? Convicts, for sure, but more often than not forced Asian laborers and Asian prostitutes.
That expanded in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act as places like California despised the competition immigrants from China had created not just for jobs, but for precious metal in the waning years of the gold rush.
Since then, Congress passed one bill after another, all designed to restrict immigration — typically in ways that today could only be classified as racist.
Three presidents — Grover Cleveland, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson — were against many of these attempts, especially those that wanted to deny entry to immigrants who failed a literacy test, a move that already existed in the south to deny African-Americans the right to vote. Cleveland and Taft successfully blocked it, but congress finally overrode a Wilson veto in 1917 to make such tests a requirement.
A century later, we still haven’t figured out the proper way to welcome new people into the United States with dignity.
According to the nonpartisan think tank Migration Policy Institute, more than 43 million immigrants live in the United States, accounting for more than 13 percent of the country’s total population — the highest since before many of the aforementioned anti-immigration laws were enacted.
Yet, the only claim with any viability that immigration could consume more resources than it creates are various reports that show job growth is not keeping pace with population growth.
Immigrants certainly fuel population growth — with more than 1 million people granted permanent residence in the United States in 2015, according to the Department of Homeland Security. But so does simple procreation — 4 million babies were born in the United States that same year, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
So if immigration is bad for the economy, couldn’t the same be true for the maternity ward?
Of course not. Those babies are innocent. But in the long run, so are the 800,000 people protected through President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — better known as DACA.
The 2012 executive action was designed to protect undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children, giving them a chance to become productive members of the community by bringing them out of the shadows, and protecting them from deportation.
Qualifying for DACA is not easy. Each one is younger than 31, and had to arrive in the United States before they were old enough to drive. They had to have completed school, or be in school, and could not have a criminal record.
Yes, being undocumented in the United States is illegal — but as children, these particular immigrants never set out to break the law. They simply followed their parents, their families, all in the hopes of finding a better life in the United States.
Support for those protected under DACA among the general population is quite high — even if overall sentiment is against illegal immigration in general. These DACA men and women, boys and girls, are exactly the kind of immigrants this country wants — law-abiding, productive, educated.
Yet, Trump wants to sweep them away.
The president is right — Congress should have acted on this long ago. The law-making body did have an excuse: Blocking Obama at every turn was, after all, a full-time job.
But Trump has now put a ticking clock on whether these people — American in every way, except by name — can continue to contribute to a society that has come to depend on them as much as they depend on it.
Immigration reform is needed, but mass, indiscriminate deportations are not the way to do it. The policy didn’t work under Obama, and it certainly won’t work under Trump.
It’s time to show some compassion, and to finally welcome those who came to America in tired, poor, huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.