By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
This poem by Emma Lazarus, mounted in the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, once made me proud to be an American. It was part of the mythology I was taught as a kid: the United States welcomes immigrants, gives them an opportunity for a better life, and benefits from their contributions.
I later discovered that the reality is starkly, depressingly different. Since the nation’s founding, every wave of immigrants — Germans, Irish, Italians, Jews, Asians, Hispanics, to name a few— has been resisted. I saw merit in America’s “melting pot” concept until I noticed the hostility directed at those who do not sufficiently dilute their cultural identity. Some groups, such as Blacks, and Muslims are still struggling for full acceptance.
Fear of the other — those who are physically or culturally different — is deeply ingrained in the human psyche, a primal holdover from times when survival depended upon hoarding resources with one’s own kind — the known and therefore trusted — from possible marauders (the unknown and therefore distrusted).
Our current heartless treatment of immigrants, migrants and refugees, especially those of color, is hardly new. Even Afghans who risked their lives helping our military during our 20-year war in their country are having trouble getting in. The dispiriting thicket of red tape they face in the name of national security is an outrage that the Biden Administration has been slow to fix … for, I suspect, political reasons.
With high stakes midterm elections approaching, immigration and crime are the top issues for Republicans, who vow to impeach President President Biden if they reclaim Congress. Among their grounds, they claim, is his refusal to honor his oath of office by leaving our borders “open” to an “invasion” that is devastating communities near our Southwestern border, costing taxpayers and threatening to destroy the entire country.
A record total of more than 2 million unauthorized people have been apprehended in the past 11 months, which speaks to the dire conditions in the countries from which they are coming. How they are being processed (or not) is the crux of the matter.
People with at least half a heart recognize that we need a better system that can handle great volume efficiently and effectively and do it humanely while keeping our border secure. But it seems even the notions of granting asylum from persecution or letting law-abiding people in with a clear path to citizenship are being tightly restricted and even abandoned.
I am not saying that all Americans are stonehearted bigots. There are many compassionate, generous people working to help refugees, migrants and immigrants. It’s just that our system, our political and legal institutions, too often work against those who try to come here and stay.
Now that Donald Trump’s efforts to build a border wall have stalled, Governors Ron DeSantis (Florida), Gregg Abbott (Texas), and Doug Ducey (Arizona) have been leading the GOP’s defense of the nation by sending busloads and planeloads of immigrants and refugees to sanctuary cities such as New York, Chicago, and Washington D.C. (including Vice President Kamala Harris’s neighborhood) often without first notifying authorities there.
This cynical “We don’t want them, you take them!” tactic is being hailed on the right as a clever if not humorous form of protest, a way to showcase the hypocrisy of liberals in cities that do not bear the burdens of receiving and caring for thousands of desperate, destitute people.
Never mind that DeSantis spent $615,000 to send 48 Venezuelan immigrants, some of them with a legal right to seek asylum, to Martha’s Vineyard on two chartered flights. That the immigrants were welcomed but quickly moved to a military base on Cape Cod was the right’s “See! We told you!” moment; their obvious bottom line being that Democrats and liberals are as hypocritical as Republicans and conservatives, and little or nothing will be done by either side to help those people forge a new life.
In all this hideous political bickering, the humanity of immigrants and refugees, and what they have endured in their homelands, is rarely mentioned along with the costs and alleged threats they bring. Think about what it would take you to leave your home here and throw yourself on the mercy of strangers while making a long, perilous, uncertain journey to a strange country where you don’t speak the language and many people don’t want you there.
Back in 2006, President George W. Bush called upon all members of Congress to not lose sight of the fact “that we’re talking about human beings, decent human beings that need to be treated with respect” in support of an immigration reform bill. The bill died and legislative efforts since then have been directed at removing the right of immigrant children born in America to be automatically granted citizenship or to deport undocumented people who have been living here peacefully and productively for many years to countries they have never seen.
Yes, there are some bad eggs among the incoming, just as there are bad eggs in every group of humans, but the overwhelming message from the right is that those who are crossing the southern border are mainly “sweaty Third World campesinos” in “dirty work pants” (to use Tucker Carlson’s charming phrase), tramps, scoundrels, freeloaders, criminals (particularly rapists, in Trump’s view) and, worst of all, potential Democratic voters.
Crime committed by so-called “illegals” is a valid concern (see the official stats here), but not as bad, according to the Justice Department, as we are led to believe in besieged states such as Texas. And contrary to myth, “States don't provide any public benefits to the unauthorized,” Muzaffar Chishti a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, told NPR. “The only two public benefits that — under our law and the Constitution — we provide are basic public schooling and emergency medical care.”
Chisti explained that “every study that has been done for the last 30 years has shown that immigrants, including the unauthorized, are a net gain for the country” because a large majority aren’t eligible for any social benefits and almost all pay taxes that actually help support the Social Security system for American citizens.
The immigrants I’ve seen in the course of my daily life, from a Yemeni deli owner in Brooklyn to the Central American field workers at the farm near my home in New York’s Hudson Valley, toil very long, hard hours for modest pay in order to support families. And they aren’t taking jobs from “real” Americans. There’s a labor shortage now.
Instead of working together to fix the horrid conditions in Central American and other countries — until they improve, waves of people will keep coming — we’re wrapped up in a grand exercise of NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard). Trump recently told interviewer Sean Hannity that if he returns to the White House he will deport “millions and millions” he says are “poisoning the country.”
The GOP’s coldhearted approach is in keeping with the party’s long opposition to civil rights, LGBTQ rights, worker, consumer and environmental protections, and other humane issues. It’s not surprising that a sheriff in Bexar County, Tex., has opened a criminal investigation of DeSantis, who is also being sued by immigrant and civil rights advocates for enticing immigrants to travel to Martha’s Vineyard with false promises of jobs and support. Compassion is not the right’s strong suit.
I will never forget hearing conservative icon Rush Limbaugh defend harsh border protection measures by saying that separating children from their parents is good because kids these days are pampered and it will toughen them up.
The right isn’t the factory showroom floor for tolerance and inclusion either. According to the Anti-Defamation League, DeSantis presides over a state where anti-Semitic incidents rose 50 percent between 2020 and 2022, and where most of the people who have been charged in the Jan. 6 siege of the Capitol make their home.
And lest we forget, Florida is also the home of the “Don’t Say Gay” and “Stop-WOKE” laws designed — by those who claim to oppose governmental restriction of rights — to restrict, with dangerously unclear language, how race and gender are taught in schools. (Oh the horrors of people learning to understand each other and why certain conditions have persisted in this country for hundreds of years.)
Naturally, DeSantis is a contender for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nomination. He seems to be one of a particularly mean breed of modern Republican and has earned the nicknames DeathSantis and DeSatan from detractors for his staunch, punitive opposition to pandemic protection measures such as mask and vaccine mandates.
Meanwhile, the right keeps flogging the Great Replacement Theory that American whites are under attack and in danger of disappearing. It’s xenophobia of the kind that perpetually plagues this entire world.
In America, immigrants have succeeded largely in spite of the perpetual resistance to them, not because the heartwarming ideal on the Statue of Liberty prevails. It’s an ideal we too rarely live up to. Crafting an effective, humane immigration system is difficult.
Even harder is improving conditions in corruption- and violence-ravaged countries like Venezuela, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala so their citizens will want to remain there. NGOs are working against all odds toward that goal and the U.S. government is devoting hundreds of millions of dollars to a multi-faceted “Root Causes Strategy” that will take time before any results are noticeable. Meanwhile, the game of immigrant hot potato goes on here.
Perhaps it’s time to replace the poem on the Statue of Liberty. I suggest the lyrics of the 1960s song “Easy to Be Hard.”
How can people be so heartless?
How can people be so cruel?
Easy to be proud
Easy to say no
Easy to be cold
Easy to say no.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.