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The Wretched Refuse of Your Teeming Shores

Emma Lazarus

Take a close look at those refugees who are fleeing the war-torn Middle East and trying desperately to save their lives by escaping to Europe. Look at their faces. Examine their clothing.

Those are the people that Emma Lazarus was describing when she wrote her poem “Colossus,” which is inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. (It’s really worth reading again.)

Those Middle East refugees are definitely not “your storied pomp” — the rich, the well-dressed, and the high-falootin. They are the absolutely perfect embodiment of “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

At one time, America said to Europe: “Send those to us. Those are the ones we want, not the well-to-do ones. “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me; I lift my lamp before the golden door.”

It is popularly believed that all the immigrants who entered the United States in the 19th century were doing so just to improve their lives. Not so. Many of them were fleeing Europe’s perpetual wars, along with the devastation, suffering, and deprivation that came with such wars. Oftentimes, they were coming to America to save their lives, just as those Middle East immigrants are doing today.

No matter what else might be said about 18th-century Americans and 19th-century Americans (e.g., that they had slavery, corporatism, denial of women’s rights, and land grants to the railroads) one thing is certain: They brought into existence the most unusual — the most exceptional, if you will — governmental structure in the history of man. It was a governmental structure that no other people — including the American people of today — have ever replicated.

One big example: Open immigration. Whoever wanted to come to the United States was in. There was nothing the government could do about it. Oh sure, there was a cursory health inspection to see if a person had tuberculosis or some other infectious illness, but if they didn’t have that, they were in, no other questions asked.

No language requirement. No education testing. No job-skills examination. If you came, you were in.

That is one radical system! I’ll bet that 99 percent of those Middle East immigrants fleeing to Europe do not have tuberculosis or another infectious illness. If they had lived during the time of our American ancestors, they would all be free to come to America. They are the homeless, the tempest-tost, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores that America beckoned.

Oh, that’s not to say that there wasn’t the same type of anti-immigrant prejudice that exists today. Of course there was. There always will be. Some people hated the Irish. Others, the Italians. Still others, the Germans.

But what was different about our ancestors was that they never permitted that prejudice to translate into laws that violated what they considered was a fundamental, God-given right that adheres to all people everywhere — the right to pursue happiness, one of the natural, God-given rights that is mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps one reason for that is that they knew that the Constitution — the higher law that governs the government — did not delegate any powers to the government to control immigration. Perhaps they also recalled that one of the reasons the English colonists rebelled in 1776 was that their own government had imposed immigration controls on its colonies in the New World.

And so it was that countless penniless immigrants, many of whom couldn’t speak a word of English, flooded into America and, in the process, contributed to the tremendous economic prosperity and increase in standard of living that ultimately made late 19th-century America the greatest and freest nation in history.

There was also the U.S.-Mexico border — the new border — the one that was drawn after the U.S. government effectively stole the northern half of Mexico as the spoils of victory in the Mexican War.

That’s a difficult thing for many Americans today to comprehend.

Today, some Americans lament that there are too many Mexican immigrants coming into their communities. Yet, here was the U.S. government in the 1840s acquiring the entire northern half of Mexico, including all the inhabitants, who were immediately and automatically made American citizens. No tests. No language requirements. No job-skills examinations. Just think: centuries of the Spanish language and Hispanic laws and culture suddenly made part of the United States. Plus thousands of Mexicans who were automatically made citizens.

Would Americans to that today? Not a chance. That would mean too many Spanish-speaking Mexicans and too much Hispanic culture and tradition.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t anti-Mexican prejudice during the 1840s. Of course there was. There always will be. But that didn’t stop the U.S. government from incorporating the northern half of a Hispanic country into the United States, along with all its inhabitants.

Our American ancestors were undoubtedly one of the most unusual people in history.

Those Middle East refugees are definitely not “your storied pomp” — the rich, the well-dressed, and the high-falootin. They are the absolutely perfect embodiment of “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
Imagine: No borders controls between Mexico and the United States on the new border. Not even TB health inspections! Mexicans were free to cross back and forth and so were Americans. People retained their respective citizenships but were free to tour, visit, invest, work, and even open up businesses without governmental permission.

It was no different on the west coast, where thousands of Chinese and Japanese immigrants were fleeing their homelands to come to America. No, not even a TB inspection station there either.

It was racial prejudice against Asians that motivated statists to begin imposing on America the same type of system that existed — and still exists — all over the world — a system of immigration controls, a system by which the government maintains strict controls over entry by foreigners into the country and centrally plans the movements of millions of people — and, as part of the process, maintains a totalitarian-like regimen of identification papers,  checkpoints, searches, raids, barriers, and walls.

Is it any wonder that there has been chaos and crisis ever since?

So it is that those Middle Eastern refugees cannot freely come to America, any more than they can freely move into European countries. “We have immigration quotas,” U.S. officials lament. “We have no choice but to keep the golden door closed, even if we have helped cause the death, devastation, and suffering with our violent imperialist, regime-change foreign policy. After all, don’t forget — there could be terrorists among those refugees who might be angry over the death and destruction we have wreaked in their countries.”

Of course, it’s not the only time that immigration controls have been used in a negative way. Recall when Hitler and his Nazi machine offered to let Jews living in Germany to leave the country. No one would take them. And they certainly couldn’t come freely to the United States. As President Franklin Roosevelt, who is reputed to have been a great lover of the poor, as manifested by his love of the welfare state he foisted onto America, put it, “We have the quota system.” Just think how many of those millions of people killed in the Holocaust could have been saved but for the “quota system.”

I say we modify Emma Lazarus’s poem as follows:

Don’t send us your poor, your homeless, you tempest-tossed, or your wretched refuse. Who wants those dregs? Keep them for yourselves. We’re only interested in your rich, well-educated, well-trained, and well-to-do. We want your princes and princesses. We want your storied pomp. We are exceptional.

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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