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Emma Lazarus Doesn’t Need An Editor — The ‘New Colossus’ Is Exactly Right
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It’s often tough to grasp just how far we’ve gone in normalizing the racist cruelty of the current regime, but the president’s new immigration czar, an erstwhile birther by the name of Ken Cuccinelli, offered us yet another moment of historic indecency Tuesday morning.

He suggested that we rewrite the poem by Emma Lazarus on the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty, erasing that stuff about “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and replacing it with “give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet.”

Cuccinelli offered this revision as part of the roll out of the administration’s latest efforts to restrict legal immigration, which amount to imposing what the ever-timid New York Times calls  “an aggressive wealth test on immigrants.”

The new rule is the logical result of a regime whose central motive is racist fearmongering, and it will have the immediate and intended effect of  terrifying legal immigrants and keeping them from seeking public assistance.

Acting Director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli speaks during a briefing at the White House, Monday, Aug. 12, 2019, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Acting Director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli speaks during a briefing at the White House, Monday, Aug. 12, 2019, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)

To give you a sense of just how un-American this new regulation is, let’s recall what founding father George Washington had to say about immigration — one of his first decrees as president was to encourage it. He recognized that the new republic would be made great by welcoming “not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions.”

Washington sensed, correctly, that the rigors of the immigration process acted as a quality control filter, insuring that new Americans were precisely the sort of intrepid, ambitious people who would fuel our national expansion.

History has borne him out. Much of the reason America has become so wealthy and powerful is because of the ambition of the immigrants who settled here. This is why most American families celebrate the legacy of their hard-working forebears, who nearly always came to this country dirt poor and worked tirelessly to “give their children a better life.” This notion is literally baked into our national mythos, whether your ancestors came from Ireland or Italy, Poland or Peru, Sweden or Swaziland.

The political aim of this poisonous new regulation is to limit legal immigration so that wealthier, white people predominate. It is a logical corollary to the administration’s sadistic treatment of refugees seeking asylum in this country.

Their objective is to stem the tide of poor brown people into this country, because poor brown people — if allowed to become citizens — tend to vote for candidates who don’t vilify them, which is to say, for Democrats. This is an anxiety that right-wing demagogues and news outlets stress over and over, and it’s borne out by polling data.

To revise this poem is to impoverish our soul as a nation, to make us meaner and more frightened in the eyes of the world, but no happier or safer.

But there’s also a psychological angle to this new immigration policy. Supporters praise it as a terrific way to celebrate the American value of “self-sufficiency.”

That sounds great. Until you consider the values demonstrated by this president.

As a reminder: Trump inherited a fortune from his father, managed to lose billions of dollars in business, and went bankrupt repeatedly, despite his talent for tax fraud and educational scams. He is also on record as the laziest president in history, a man who spends more time watching TV, rage tweeting, and playing golf than reading briefings.

Furthermore, whites without a college degree — a critical portion of the GOP base that slavishly supports the president — benefit from federal anti-poverty programs more than any other group. This might explain why they are continually (and erroneously) labeling immigrants and undocumented workers as freeloaders. It’s called projection.

Trump’s anti-immigrant crusade exploits this unacknowledged sense of shame that roils within his base. By inflaming their sense of racial grievance, Trump allows them to convert inadequacy about their economic utility into a cleansing rage aimed at some imaginary invading horde.

This circa 1950 photo shows a bronze plaque of the poem by Poet Emma Lazurus on Statue of Liberty in New York. (AP)
This circa 1950 photo shows a bronze plaque of the poem by Poet Emma Lazurus on Statue of Liberty in New York. (AP)

But the whole point of Emma Lazarus’ lovely poem is that America is a country predicated on the notion that we all deserve an equal shot at the American dream. “Send these,” she wrote, “the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This spirit of generosity to the stranger, and mercy to the helpless, is not only the core of Christian theology, but the central tenet of our republic. It has driven every great social movement in our history, from abolition to suffrage to Civil Rights. It is at the heart of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, whose programs — Social Security, Medicare, etc. — remain wildly popular.

To revise this poem is to impoverish our soul as a nation, to make us meaner and more frightened in the eyes of the world, but no happier or safer.

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