Lazarus is also wrong in portraying immigrants as “tired . . . poor . . . wretched refuse . . . the homeless, tempest-tost.” Does that describe your ancestors, whoever they were, wherever they came from? (Okay, I am biased because I come from restless people, movers to Latin America from Spain in the 17th and 19th centuries and from Germany in the 20th, and parents who left Ecuador and Puerto Rico for the United States in the 1930s.) Our family legends — and historical fact — teach us that immigrants have been the ambitious and the adventurous, the ones battling storms to get to a better place, and they have rarely been the poorest of the poor, if only because it takes money to travel. Roberto Suro, The Washington Post
Roberto Suro, in The Washington Post, proposes removing Emma Lazarus’ great poem from the Statue of Liberty. His stated motivations include snobbery (Huddled masses? Ewwww! Not my family!) and a rather elaborate rationale based on the bizarre assumption that economics has nothing to do with politics. “Economic imperatives,” he declares “much more than political aspirations, have always driven immigration to the United States.”
To answer Mr. Suro’s question about whether Lazarus’ poem describes my own immigrant forebears – I don’t know. It may be that one or two of those overwhelmingly white, Christian ancestors came here because they’d been caught stealing something in England back when America was being used as a penal colony and were shipped over as indentured servants. (Which would make them part of the “wretched refuse”) However, our only family legend about immigration does not involve either tyranny or grinding poverty. Nor does it fit Suro’s model of the “ambitious and adventurous.”
One of my great grandfathers was a British sailor from Portsmouth who jumped ship in New York and lived here illegally, waiting tables and saving money before sending for his wife and kids a few years later. Adventurous he may have been, but I’d hesitate to apply the word “ambitious,” given that he seemed content to wait tables for the rest of his life. He is affectionately remembered by his descendents as good-natured, lackadaisical, and quite amoral. If he suffered from “oppression” in England I suspect it was oppression from his irate parents and in-laws wondering when he was going to settle down and get a job that lasted.
But that’s only a single example from my family’s experience. My husband’s family, who came from Russia early in the twentieth century, is another matter. They were part of the large Jewish migration to America from Eastern Europe that took place, not coincidentally, at a time of crushing persecution. It was driven by poverty and by political oppression in the form of pogroms and anti-Semitic laws. And the fact that many of those immigrants neither formally applied for political asylum here, nor relied on refugee organizations, does not render their flight any less a flight to freedom and opportunity.
The same could be said of the great wave of Irish immigrants fleeing a famine that many felt was exacerbated by British rule, or the Italian immigrants fleeing miserable economic conditions in southern Italy in the late 19th century, or Swedes who fled either the political regime or religious oppression under the state church. Yes, all of these people had to scrape together enough money for the voyage (frequently in steerage, under miserable conditions) but it’s semantic cheese-paring to say that because they weren’t the “poorest of the poor,” Lazarus’ use of the word “poor” is somehow incorrect. The fact remains that they were frequently poverty-stricken, desperate, and bereft of options in their own country. They saw America as offering not only economic hope, but a place where they, or at least their children, could vote and have a say in their own destinies.
What drives Suro’s nasty essay is nothing more or less than right-wing contempt for the poor who, in Suro’s viewpoint, cannot possibly be “Tired…poor…wretched refuse…tempest tost” and at the same time “ambitious,” “adventurous,” “battling storms to get to a better place.”
They can be, Mr. Suro. They were. Our immigrant ancestors included people who were “poor” and “ambitious,” “wretched” and “adventurous,” “tempest-tost” and “battling storms to get to a better place” (I’d be interested in learning what Suro imagines is the difference is between the last two, by the way.) What Mr. Suro dislikes about the poem strikes at the very heart of what has been most radical and wonderful about America.
The belief – an anathema to many modern conservatives – that the poor and the “wretched” can have as much potential, as much to offer this country as those who are prosperous and happy.