Since 1886, the Statue of Liberty has stood in New York Harbor as a beacon to individuals from around the world seeking the freedom to live their lives as they choose. On the pedestal of the statue is a plaque with the sonnet “The New Colossus”:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
For the first 150 years of its history America actually lived by these words, welcoming the “wretched refuse” of other nations with open arms. With the exception of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, American imposed virtually no restrictions on immigration. Until the 1920s, those who wanted to come to America were welcomed with open arms and open borders.
Beginning in 1921, Congress began enacting legislation that established limits on the number of individuals who could immigrate from a particular country. The desire was to limit immigrants from “undesirable” nations, such as eastern and southern Europe. Though those restrictions have been modified many times in the years since, they are still largely designed to keep out the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses.
For the ambitious poor in other countries, getting to America is virtually impossible. As we saw in “An interview with an immigrant,” the process of legally immigrating to America is laborious and expensive. Further, as we also saw, the new immigrant is often prohibited from working. Even if a poor would-be immigrant could navigate the process and pay the fees, what would he do upon arrival in America?
Opponents of illegal immigration claim that they are not opposed to immigrants, they just want the immigrants to come through the front door. Yet, the anti-illegal immigrant crowd ignores the fact that the door is locked for the ambitious poor. So what choice does a poor Mexican or Salvadoran have? He can live his life in a poverty-stricken hell with little opportunity. He can spend years, and what for him is a small fortune, trying to wade through the bureaucracy. Or, he can sneak across the border and try to make a better life for himself.
Certainly, those who immigrate illegally are breaking the law. But, it was a crime to make or drink alcohol during Prohibition; it was a crime to harbor fugitive slaves prior to the Civil War. Millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens drank alcohol during Prohibition. And any decent person would have gladly broken the law to help fugitive slaves. We recognize these laws as immoral, and we judge those who broke them accordingly.
Restrictions on immigration are equally immoral. They prohibit individuals–both Americans and immigrants–from acting on their own judgement, from contracting freely, and from pursuing their own personal happiness. Rather than call for a border fence or stiff penalties on those who employ illegals, we should be demanding the repeal of these immoral laws. We should welcome those who want nothing but to live freely, including the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses.