The same year thatEmma Lazarus‘ poem welcoming the world’s “poor” and “huddled masses” was added to the Statue of Liberty, the U.S. government rejected 5,812 of those same new arrivals for being poor.
In his annual report toCongressin 1903, U.S. Immigration CommissionerWilliam Williamswarned that too many immigrants were “entering this country with inadequate sums of money,” leaving the system with thousands of charity cases and sinking the country’s standard of living.
More than a century later, the debate between those who subscribe toLazarus‘ optimistic view and those who takeWilliams‘ more cautious approach to immigration is playing out again — this time over theTrump administration’s rules looking to discourage immigrants who are likely to end up on the public dole.
Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, laid out guidelines this week under which a migrant would be deemed likely to become a public charge.
Under the policy USCIS officers would perform more thorough reviews of whether potential immigrants either have used U.S. welfare programs or are likely to use them. The immigrants could be denied the chance for permanent legal status.
In the days since the policy was announced,Mr. Cuccinellihas been prodded with accusations that he is effectively rewriting the meaning ofLazarus‘ poem, “The New Colossus,” and deleting its plea for the world to send “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
The director fueled the controversy when he told NPR this week that whatLazarushad in mind, really, was “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
Critics were swift to condemn.
“Trump’s immigration chief just twisted the words on the Statue of Liberty,” said Voto Latino, a Democratic advocacy group. America’s Voice saidMr. Cuccinelliwas “taking a wrecking ball” to the statue.
“TheTrump administrationis rewriting history before our very eyes,” said Pili Tobar, deputy director at America’s Voice.
Historians say it’s far more complex than that.
For one thing, there is evidence that even asLazaruswas writing the poem as a fundraiser for the Statue of Liberty in 1883, Americans embraced a more restrictive view. A year earlier, the Chinese Exclusion Act had passedCongress, as did the first national law explicitly enshrining the concept that new arrivals be self-sufficient.
Twenty years later, afterLazarushad died and her poem had been rediscovered and inscribed in a plaque on the base of the statue, the country’s policy was still to exclude some of the poor she claimed to welcome.
More than 857,000 immigrants arrived by sea in 1903, according toMr. Williams‘ report toCongress. A tiny fraction — 8,769 — were denied entry. The majority of those — 5,812 — were barred because they were deemed to be paupers or likely to become public charges. The next most common reason was contagious disease, with 1,773 denials.
More than 5,000 others were denied entry at the land borders with Mexico and Canada on grounds of being paupers.
“There’s nothing new about a concern on the part of government to exclude those who either because of illness can’t support themselves, or other disability,” said Alan Kraut, a professor at American University who specializes in the history of immigration.
“There’s a long history of concern about ‘give me your tired, your poor,’” he said. “Those areEmma Lazarus‘ sentiments, but I think you can see from the legislation they’re not necessarily all shared by Americans at that point.”
Yet even when immigration was at its peak at the turn of the 20th century, the number of people barred at Ellis Island and other entry points was remarkably low — perhaps 3%, Mr. Kraut said.
It’s not clear how many people will be affected by theTrump administration’s rules. America’s Voice said it could cut legal immigration, which runs to about 1 million green cards a year, in half.
Mark Krikorian, executive director at the Center for Immigration Studies, puts the likely impact much lower. He defended theTrump administration’s move, saying it’s a sensible modern interpretation of the long-standing goal of U.S. immigration law that new arrivals not become drains on those already here.
He pointed to a law enacted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600s denying paupers the right to enter. He said that thread runs throughout U.S. history and thatMr. Cuccinelli’s move follows in those footsteps.
“This rule is just taking the principle that immigrants should be able to pay their own bills and translating it into the modern conditions of the welfare state,” he said. “We should have done this before.
“This does raise a basic difference in perspective about immigration policy. Is the purpose of immigration policy to benefit Americans who are here already, or is it to benefit the immigrants who are coming here?” he said. “I would submit that a democratic government is obliged to make policy based on what’s going to benefit the people already here. I think a lot of people objecting to this public charge rule have the opposite perspective.”
Tyler Anbinder, a history professor at the George Washington University, said that attitude has been prevalent in U.S. immigration policy at times but shortchangesLazarus‘ vision.
“What she was writing was some people may not like these refugees, they may never think they can be true Americans, but in fact they can be and will be. We should want everyone who wants to be part of the American ethos,” the professor said.
He said there are precedents for theTrump administration’s approach but those are rather frightening.
One was the Know-Nothing movement of the 1850s, which led to deportations of Irish migrants found in Massachusetts poorhouses. The other, he said, was the move during the Great Depression to deport Mexicans and Mexican Americans in order to reduce competition for jobs. That move, Mr. Anbinder said, has gone down in history alongside the internment of Japanese Americans as the worst abuses of the Depression-World War II era.
“There is precedent, but it’s really bad precedent. So if theTrump administrationwants to add itself to those precedents, I think it needs to know the kind of company it’s keeping,” he said.
Both Mr. Anbinder and Mr. Kraut said the relatively small number of people denied entry by the public charge requirement suggests it was meant to be an easy bar to clear.Mr. Cuccinelli’s rule, they said, distorts that.
“This policy that’s just been annunciated, while it certainly has precedent in terms of the United States not wanting to admit people who might be accepting social services, is that it’s extremely shortsighted,” Mr. Kraut said.
He said the 3% rejection rate, even at peak immigration, suggests that while the public charge restriction was on the books, inspectors were reluctant to use it save for the most egregious cases.
“I think what they understood is immigrants bring their intelligence, their industriousness, their creativity and sometimes just their strong backs to helping build the United States. They do a lot, they’ve done a lot, and their children do even more. So when you admit an immigrant you make an investment in America’s future,” he said. “Without using those words specifically, the immigration inspectors seem to have understood that this is an investment in humanity.”
Their boss, however, saw it differently.
“The exclusion of all persons whose presence would tend to lower our standard of living or civilization would not keep out any of the large number of desirable immigrants who annually seek admission and are a real addition to the wealth of the country, but I believe it would keep out the thousands of aliens who are yearly adding to the congested condition of our city tenements, and who remain utterly un-American in all of their ideas and aspirations, even after years of residence in the United States,”Mr. Williamswrote.
His view was not without controversy.
Forward, the storied newspaper for American Jews, in 1913 cheeredWilliams‘ resignation from the commissioner’s post and called him “evil.”
“Now that the commissioner is to be replaced, Ellis Island will no longer be flooded with rivers of immigrants’ tears,” the paper wrote.
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