An emotionally charged debate on immigration is sweeping the country. The wrenching question: What to do with the millions of illegal immigrants, many of whom have lived here for years, if not decades, and have children who are U.S. citizens? Immigrants currently account for a big chunk of our population -- about 38 million including legals and illegals.
The hidden agenda behind the opposition to immigration reform is "keep America for Americans" -- a phrase that is often a code for racial and ethnic discrimination. Opponents reject reform proposals that would provide a way for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship. And they want to stop or drastically curtail new immigration. That stance is like the last person who gets on the life boat pulling down the ladder and stranding the ones remaining on the ship. Have these opponents conveniently forgotten that, other than descendants of Native Americans, we all carry the genes of immigrants?
Opposition to immigration is not new. We've warmed up to immigration when we needed workers to fill labor shortages, and turned nasty toward immigrants at other times. In the 19th century, Chinese workers were brought in to build the Western railroads and work the gold mines. Mexicans were welcomed in the 1920s to fill a labor shortfall. In both instances, subsequent restrictive legislation resulted in legions of those immigrants being deported. And throughout our history, "nativist" movements have sprung up, praising previous generations of immigrants while casting suspicion on the new arrivals. Even Benjamin Franklin worried about a foreign takeover by immigrants: "Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglicizing them."
Contrary to the popular belief that we are swimming in more immigrants than ever, in 1890 14.8 percent of our population was foreign-born compared to today's 12.5 percent. And the number of illegal immigrants is on the decline.
The descendants of those 1890 immigrants multiplied exponentially over the succeeding decades -- immigrants, especially in the first and second generations, tend to have large families. Their offspring contributed substantially to "The Greatest Generation" that Tom Brokaw wrote about. In fact, descendants of immigrants have been at the core of all the great generations of Americans -- immigrants and their descendants gave us the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.
October 28th was the 125th anniversary of the dedication of France's gift of friendship to our independent nation: The Statue of Liberty. It's a perfect time to recapture the spirit and compassion of America, and ignite the inspiration to resolve the current immigration crisis.
Perhaps we should meditate on the poem by Emma Lazarus, a young Jewish poet and novelist who gave us the uplifting words that are engraved on a plaque on the inside pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor ... " They are also inscribed on a wall in the International Arrivals building at John F. Kennedy airport in New York City. You won't see a welcome like that anywhere else in the world.
Emma Lazarus wrote her poem The New Colossus in 1883 for an art auction to raise money for the construction of a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. Emma was not an immigrant, but rather a fourth-generation American from a well-to-do prominent New York family. The poem probably was inspired, in part, by her distress over the violence against Jews in Eastern Europe in the pogroms that were flourishing. Emma dedicated much of her time to aiding the needy in New York City. The poem, though, was forgotten until stumbled upon in an archive by Georgina Schyuler, a patron of the Statue, after Emma's untimely death from cancer at age 38 in1887. It wasn't until 1903 that it was placed in its entirety on the base of the Statue.
The poem forever changed the meaning of Ms. Liberty from its original intention as an inspiration to oppressed nations to a welcoming of poor, suffering, and freedom-seeking people. While most of us are familiar with the last five lines, all 14 lines of the sonnet are powerful reminders of what America has represented for the world -- and still can:
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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door".
The soul of America glows with these words. But will we now dim the torch and send the huddled masses to find breathing room elsewhere? As we tire of the tired and the poor, will we lose our soul? Soul-searching questions that deserve serious attention.
Note: In conjunction with the 125th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, the Museum of Jewish Heritage in NYC has launched an exhibition, Emma Lazarus: Poet of Exiles, that will run to summer 2012