In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote the poem “The New Colossus” to help raise funds for a base for the Statue of Liberty. We all know, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” What to make of those words today?
I love the Statue of Liberty. In February 1906, Chaim Shlioma and Kayleh Perelstein, their 2-1/2-year-old son Moishe—my father Morris—and two daughters, Elka and Etka, sailed into New York Harbor. They’d left Warsaw, Poland, then part of the Russian Empire, because opportunities there for Jews were scant and pogroms frequent, like those in Kishinev and Kiev in 1905.
I fantasize that my grandfather held little Moishe aloft and pointed to “The Lady.” America!
From 1885, Eastern Europe’s huddled masses—Jews, Poles, Slavs, Italians, Greeks (many Germans and Irish came earlier)—entered America by the millions. In 1924, Congress slammed the door shut. America, which long excluded Chinese and savaged its black citizens, had grown increasingly anti-Semitic. Only white Protestants need apply.
Sounds familiar? Yet the huddled masses continued to bring their dreams from every corner of the planet and helped build—and defend—this nation. In one generation, the descendants of the “wretched refuse” became “real” Americans. Should America now fear new additions?
It’s sensible to continually reassess immigration policy, because while history may repeat itself, it’s neither cyclical nor entirely linear. But change is real.
The Perlsteins (we later dropped an “e”) arrived in New York only 12 years after the American frontier was declared closed. Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona were territories. (Alaska and Hawaii became states more than 50 years later.) In 1906, America’s population was 85 million. The nation sought immigrants to work on farms and ranches, in mines, steel mills, factories, stockyards and urban sweatshops. Immigrant laborers would swell production and also serve as consumers.
The dream of America in a challenging world continues. But our population is 330 million while our land mass remains the same. That population has shifted. As eastern and northern cities aged, we flooded the Sun Belt. Oklahoma City has more people than Baltimore, Albuquerque more than Cleveland, and Phoenix—the nation’s sixth largest city—more than Boston and Detroit combined. Our most populous state? California.
We’re now post-industrial with artificial intelligence threatening millions of jobs. We need fewer strong backs, more education. As always, the poor will need help. A century ago, family along with religious and community groups helped pave the way. Public assistance wasn’t an option. There was none. Today’s non-profits will need to step up their game.
This stated, we can and should welcome new immigrants. We still need farm workers, meat packers, restaurant workers, roofers and healthcare workers. More doctors and nurses, too. So, how many of who?
We’ve yet to hold an objective, expertise-based national discussion. Congress concerns itself with the immigration’s politics. The president, a nativist, and his far-right supporters want educated Europeans—whites. The far-left preaches virtual open borders, leaving unconsidered impacts on federal, state and local budgets, as well as on social upheaval.
It’s critical to salute the ideals represented by the Statue of Liberty while seeing things as they are—to be hard-headed without hardening our hearts. I believe that “The Lady” I love gets that.
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