Savin Hill Bill wrote in response to my blog about the caravan heading to our southern border: “Interested in the [immigration] issue? Read BC Prof Peter Skerry, and his recent article, WHAT EMMA LAZARUS MEANT, in Nov/Dec THE AMERICAN INTEREST . . . .”
In the past I’ve read about Lazarus so I was interested. I did not find his recent article but I did read an article by him in 2006 titled “Mother of Invention” which most likely expresses similar thoughts.
Skerry describes Lazarus as “The daughter of a wealthy sugar refiner, Lazarus was a secular, assimilated Jew. But in the early 1880s, as Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia began to arrive in New York, she became a champion of her people.”
True though that be, he leaves out so much more than that. She was a brilliant woman privately educated fluent in German, French, and Italian. A prominent writer who wrote poetry, plays, essays and translated foreign poets among other things. She had little to do with the plight of the Jews until in her early thirties when she began working with those who had come to America escaping from the Russian after the assassination of the Tsar Alexander II in 1881 which was blamed on Jews. She then shed her hands off approach and began to work among the poor Jews surviving hand-to-mouth the slums of the city. Her poem “The New Colossus” came from that experience and her heart.
The Statue’s originally was named “La Liberte eclairant le monde” (Liberty Enlightening the World). Skerry says the Statue of Liberty “was intended as a beacon of hope to those struggling for liberty in their own lands, not as a welcome light for those seeking liberty here. . . . “. That may have been its intent in 1875 but the huge influx of immigrants that came to America after its light was turned on showed the European monarchs made it clear that under them it was futile to hope for liberty. Sadly, today, when its light is more needed than ever it has been all but extinguished.
Skerry noted that the refugees coming into New York saw the Statue as “a symbol not merely of welcome to immigrants but, more specifically, of refuge to those fleeing persecution and oppression.” He quotes the “dean of American immigration historians,” John Higham, “the immigrants saw Liberty “not as a beacon to other lands but as a redemptive salutation to themselves.’”
Skerry suggest we should not focus only on that. He wrote Lazarus’s words about immigrants “yearning to be free” were not necessarily true. He said: “many immigrants have come to the United States not on account of lofty aspirations for political freedom but because of much more mundane appetites for economic security and advancement. Obviously these two are not unrelated. But they are distinct and should not be so readily confounded.”
How could they be distinct? The idea of freedom is inextricably linked with the ability to earn a living, as FDR said at the 50th anniversary of the Statue’s dedication, people came because they did not have “liberty of conscience, liberty of speech, liberty of the person, liberty of economic opportunity”
Skerry then suggests when Lazarus wrote “your tired poor . . . The wretched refuse of your teaming shore” she erred. He notes poor people would not be able to pay for a transatlantic passage so the immigrants arriving had to be of “modest means.”
Skerry seems intent on changing our conception of immigrants. He wrote in the American Interest, a right of center magazine: “In fact, most immigrants to North America have not typically been the poorest of the poor. As economic historians Jeffrey Williamson and Timothy Hatton have persuasively argued, throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, it was seldom the poorest strata of sending societies that migrated to the United States. Rather it was those with the cultural capacities and financial means to plan and pay for Transatlantic travel. Even among those who might today be considered refugees or even forced migrants—Jews escaping Czarist pogroms or Irish peasants fleeing famine—it was those with relatively greater resources who were most likely to pick up and leave.”
Skerry is telling us: Lazarus was fooled. Those Jews living in the crowded, disease infected, slums on the Lower East Side that she tried to help could have easily moved up to a nice apartment on upper West Side. FDR was fooled into thinking the immigrants came “to start at the bottom without influence, without money, . . . “ adding “They came to us – most of them – in steerage.” So was I fooled. The children of my grandparents never had to go down to the railroad tracks and look for pieces of coal that fell off passing trains.
I never knew there were upper class poor these professors from their elysian perch seem to have discovered. I don’t believe any of them worked among the poor as Lazarus did to feel it on their skin. Did you ever wonder when Jesus said: “The poor you will alway have with you” which poor he was talking about?
Skerry is offering his thoughts in light of the recent immigration from Central America. He wants to suggest we treat these people differently because other folk even more destitute than them have been left behind. Skerry’s intent is to have us view the immigrants in a different light. He wants us to forget they are desperate people seeing both the safety, freedom and economic assistance our country offers. He wants us to look at them through cold eyes as people looking to take advantage of our country. He tells us “immigrants do not seem as grateful to be here as Americans would like.” It’s all right then that we not be tricked into feeling bad for them.
Do people of modest means walk thousands of miles?