Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty

From the Washington Examiner:

Stephen Miller is right: Lazarus’ immigration poem is not US law.

There’s been some argument over who came out ahead in the picturesque set-to between White House staffer Stephen Miller and CNN reporter Jim Acosta over the White House support of the immigration bill sponsored by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue. On one point at least it seems to me that Miller had the best of it when he charged that Acosta was being “ahistorical.”

Acosta kept reading and reciting the Emma Lazarus poem written before the Statue of Liberty was erected in 1886 but not inscribed at its base until 1903: “Give us your tired, your poor,” etc. His plain implication was that the United States had an open immigration policy back in the years before World War I.

That implication is flatly false. The early republic did not have a federal immigration policy, but as immigration started rising well after the end of the 1792-1815 world war between Britain and France, the state governments did inspect immigrants alighting from sailing and then steam ships, with a view to excluding those with communicable diseases or unable to support themselves economically and thus likely to become “a public charge.” For more information on this, see Vincent Cannato’s 2010 book American Passage: The History of Ellis Island.

In the 1880s the federal government took over the task of screening immigrants, building the Ellis Island inspection station which opened in 1892 within easy sight of the Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island processed millions between 1892 and 1914, when the outbreak of World War I pretty much cut off overseas immigration, and again from 1919 to 1924, when a sharply restrictive immigration act was passed, barring virtually all immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.

The Ellis Island regime was not, however, the kind of open immigration system Jim Acosta and an increasing number of liberals and Democrats seem to favor. For one thing, the most tired and poor seldom made it to the United States, because they lacked the money or the heartiness to afford or weather even steerage passage on a trans-Atlantic steamship. More importantly, the government excluded those deemed (at their Ellis Island inspection or elsewhere) suffering from communicable diseases, those deemed to be insane or “loathsome” and those “likely to become a public charge.” (Here’s a sample of exclusions for such reasons.)

More at the link. See also:

Jim Acosta, Racist Apologist for White Privilege

White House adviser Stephen Miller made short work of CNN’s Jim Acosta at yesterday’s White House press briefing on immigration. Acosta enjoined, “It sounds like you’re trying to engineer the racial and ethnic flow of people into this country through this policy,” by giving preference to English speakers. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s 1.2 billion English speakers are African or Asian.

Acosta claimed that preferential treatment for English-speaking applicants would benefit people from Great Britain and Australia. Scathingly, Miller replied:

“I am shocked at your statement, that you think only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English. It reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree. This is an amazing moment. That you think only people from Great Britain or Australia would speak English is so insulting to millions of hard-working immigrants who do speak English from all over the world. Jim, have you honestly never met an immigrant from another country who speaks English, outside of Great Britain and Australia? Is that your personal experience?”

There are about 1.2 billion English speakers in the world, including 125 million Indians, 90 million Filipinos, 79 million Nigerians, 30 million Bengalis, 28 million Egyptians and 15 million Pakistanis, according to Wikipedia. More than half of all English-speakers are non-European. Barely a tenth of English speakers outside the United States live in Britain, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. Acosta’s gaffe was epically ignorant and racist in the extreme.

Acosta repeatedly interrupted Miller, chanting “Give me your tired, your poor…,” a line from Emma Lazarus’ 1883 sonnet The New Colossus which is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. If anything, Miller handled the CNN journalist too gently. He might have said: “America had no restrictions to immigration in 1883, and millions of white European immigrants poured into the American heartland. To accommodate them we drove out the Native Americans. By 1890 there were only 250,000 Native Americans left in the United States, compared to 2 million or more before European settlers arrived. In other words, we gave privileges to white people and killed or displaced people of color. You can argue the merits of this policy, but we don’t want to return to a situation in which immigration occurs at the expense of people who were here first.”

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