On August 2, the White House press room was the scene of one of those dialogues of the deaf that so infuriate people outside Washington. Stephen Miller, one of President Trump’s senior policy advisers, stepped to the podium to endorse an immigration reform bill sponsored by two Republican senators, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia. Whether you approve or disapprove of the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act—and I generally approve—the next several minutes, by any measure, were disheartening.
First, Jim Acosta, the CNN senior White House correspondent whose function seems largely to engage Trump administration spokesmen in pitched arguments while the cameras are rolling, told Miller that “what you’re proposing here . . . does not sound like it’s in keeping with American tradition when it comes to immigration.” And then, to emphasize his debating point, he reminded Miller (and anyone listening) that “the Statue of Liberty says, ‘Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ It doesn’t say anything about speaking English or being able to be a computer programmer.”
At which point Miller, in keeping with Trump White House press policy, chose not to dismiss the reporter’s non sequitur with a wave of his hand or a pitying smile, and stay on message, but to angrily engage Acosta. The next several minutes were consumed with a loud and fractious verbal wrestling match about immigration policy that revealed Acosta’s ignorance of American history and Miller’s capacity for rising to baits. By the end, if CNN had enlightened its viewers on a complex subject or the White House advanced the prospects for passage of the RAISE Act, I managed to miss it.
I was, however, intrigued by Acosta’s recurring invocation of the Statue of Liberty, which, he explained, “has always been a beacon of hope to the world for people to send their people to this country.” Which, strictly speaking, is not quite so. It is true, of course, that the Statue of Liberty has become a talisman of sorts for immigration to America. But that is because it is (accidentally) situated in New York Harbor adjacent to Ellis Island, which opened in 1892 to accommodate the last great wave of immigration to the United States. The 12 million people who passed through immigration control on Ellis Island until it closed in 1954 did so in the physical shadow of the Statue of Liberty. But the statue itself—a gift from France to commemorate the centennial of the American Revolution (1876)—was intended to honor not immigration but liberty, as its name would suggest. Indeed, Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus,” from which Acosta quoted its most famous line, is not so much about immigration per se as about America as symbol of freedom, whose “beacon hand / Glows world-wide welcome”—to Europeans, especially: “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp.”
In a sense, of course, the squabbling words repeated in the White House press room were nothing new, and may even be said to encompass the long, and no doubt eternal, debate about America as “a nation of immigrants.”
It is fair to say that since the first Eurasians crossed the Bering land bridge at the end of the last Ice Age, North America has welcomed newcomers with a certain ambivalence. When the Native American tribes weren’t slaughtering each other in prehistory, they turned their attention to the successive waves of Scandinavian, Dutch, Spanish, and English settlers who followed the European discovery of the continent. The dominant English and Scots of the colonial era looked askance at the Germans who, in the later decades of the early republic, disapproved of the Irish escaping famine—not to mention the Chinese who built the railroads, the free Africans who migrated northward from slavery, the Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia, and on and on.
Still, even so sensitive an observer as Henry James was not immune to this natural instinct. When he revisited New York City in 1904, James was struck by the Russian/Yiddish-accented English he encountered on the Lower East Side, wondering what it augured not just for his native tongue but for what it meant to be American. Lost on a ramble in the New Hampshire countryside, he asked directions from a young hiker who emerged from the woods. Assuming, from his “dark-eyed ‘Latin’ look,” that he might be Italian, James was unable to make himself understood in that language, and so asked plaintively, “What are you, then?” He was Armenian, came the response—thereby prompting a worried reflection, in James’s mind, about the stranger’s capacity, even desire, to assimilate into the American “brotherhood.”
Which, in a nutshell, is the conundrum. Nation-states have always protected their borders and, in varying degrees, reserved the right to withhold or grant citizenship. An influx of immigrants may confer economic benefits, in the short term, and cultural enrichment, in the long run; but the benefits are never evenly distributed, and the enrichment assumes a blend, not subversion, of values. A nation such as our own, founded on ideas and governed by laws, is entitled to demand that its immigration statutes reflect a democratic consensus, and that the laws be observed. This is logical to most citizens, and fair to all immigrants, especially those who observe the rules. Does the RAISE Act reflect these principles? That’s the question.
For obvious reasons, Henry James’s awkward encounter with an Armenian immigrant has a certain resonance with me—and, to some degree, reflects my own conflicted views about immigration policy. My paternal grandparents arrived on Ellis Island a few years after Emma Lazarus’s poem was affixed to the Statue of Liberty. But why did they come? They were fleeing for their lives from the Ottoman Turks, who had been systematically massacring Christian subjects within the empire, and who would, a dozen years later, seek to finish the Armenians off in the 1915 genocide. As a practical matter, my grandfather had an elder brother who had already emigrated and settled in Philadelphia, which is why they sailed for America and not, say, Australia or Canada.
Yet their evident determination to be “legal” immigrants—whatever that meant in 1907—had one tragic consequence. My grandfather’s elderly mother had accompanied my grandparents as far as Marseille, where a medical examination revealed that she suffered from conjunctivitis, an eye infection (now eminently curable) that caused the American authorities to forbid her entry. And so the rough decision was made: My grandparents went on to America, where they and their offspring thrived, and my great-grandmother returned alone to the Ottoman Empire, never to be heard from again. Her sacrifice, it might be argued, had a larger purpose.
Philip Terzian is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard