Opinion

Trump Gets Lady Liberty Right, Gets America’s Immigrant Problem All Wrong

America's history on migrants is spotty at best (witness the 'Chinese Exclusion Act'), but Americans can either have more babies or let in more people. Their choice.

Statue of Liberty is surrounded by fog on Liberty Island in New York. Jan 11, 2014
Santiago Lyon, AP

A highly charged exchange occurred last week between Trump adviser Stephen Miller and CNN correspondent Jim Acosta, over the relevance of Emma Lazarus’ famous poem welcoming the “huddled masses” and “wretched refuse” etched at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Following the White House backing a law to cut back immigration to the United States, Acosta cited “The New Colossus” to highlight America’s historical commitment to mass immigration, while Miller pooh-poohed the poem as an after-thought affixed to Lady Liberty years after it was built.

Miller was, of course, skewered by the media for playing with history and for philistinism. But truth be told, even the Trump White House, with all its alternative facts, duplicity and doubletalk, occasionally gets one right.

The fact is, it’s called the Statue of Liberty, not the Statue of Immigration and Naturalization, and it was built to advertise the virtues of republicanism. It became associated with immigration because it was next door to Ellis Island, where, for a long time, nearly all immigrants entered the country.

But the real issue isn’t what “The New Colossus” says or what the Statue of Liberty stands for. Miller could and should have made the reasonable point that policy isn’t based on poetry or copper likenesses of women, however noble the feelings they invoke.

In any case, when Lazarus wrote her poem in 1883, America was a very different place. It was on the cusp of the industrial revolution. America needed raw labor and your ability to read or write, speak English or perform higher math functions wasn’t relevant.  The country was so empty, it happily offered 40 acres and a mule to anyone who was interested (my great-grandfather was one of those who accepted).

Then, America had the cultural self-confidence to make sure immigrants became Americans, virtually indistinguishable from those whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, within a generation or two.

In any case, Acosta’s claim that the law isn’t in “in keeping with American tradition when it comes to immigration” is nonsense. More than most countries, America has welcomed newcomers, but it has a long history of hostility to them, and for a good part of the 20th century erected high barriers. The year before Lazarus wrote The New Colossus, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

'Sacred bonds'

But now let’s leave Emma and look at America in the second decade of the 21st century. The law would halve the quota for people entering the U.S. because they already have relatives there, and would limit who is considered a close enough relative to count.

FILE- In this circa 1950 photo shows a bronze plaque of the poem by Poet Emma Lazurus on Statue of Liberty in New York. In 1903, the poem was engraved on the bronze plaque and mounted inside the pedestal's lower level. Senior White House aide Stephen Miller told reporters Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, that the poem written by Emma Lazarus about the "huddled masses" is not part of the original Statue of Liberty. Miller says the Statue of Liberty is a "symbol of American liberty lighting the world" and suggested the statue had little to do with immigrants. (AP Photo/File)
/AP

The smaller quota of people admitted based on their job skill would remain unchanged. The decision who gets into it based on points awarded for education and level of English. None of this sounds as terribly racist or a mortal blow to immigration as critics have charged.

Trump himself defends on the grounds that too many immigrants have caused wages for those at the bottom of the labor market to fall. He also talks about restoring America’s “competitive edge” and about “sacred bonds” between Americans, by which he means American culture.

Given the Trump administration’s nativist urges, critics are right to be suspicious. The president hasn’t had many kind words to say about illegal immigrants and given the cloudiness of his thinking, he probably doesn’t distinguish between those and the legal variety.

The big problem is that restricting immigration will do almost exactly the opposite of what he claims it will.

Unemployed and out in America

Immigrants, both legal and illegal, aren’t taking away jobs, as much as they are filling a void. Last year immigrants made up nearly 17% of America’s civilian labor force, up from as little as 6.6% in 1980, yet the unemployment rate is America is just 4.3%, which is about as low as it can go.

Immigrants are more likely than native-born Americans to be in the job market, and their unemployment rate is lower. They are taking jobs at the bottom of the labor market, where Americans find the pay and conditions unacceptable, and at the top of the market, too. Between 2006 and 2012, 44% of all engineering and technology companies formed in Silicon Valley had at least one founder who was born outside the country. In other words, foreigners are sharpening America’s competitive edge.

Far from needing fewer immigrants, the U.S. will be needing more of them, because its population isn’t growing as fast as it used to. From 1950 to 2016, the U.S. labor force grew at 1.4% annually, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Now the pace is slowing to just 0.5%, so unless Americans are going to have a lot more babies, its only choice is to import more people. It’s the same dilemma Europe and Japan face.

So, the real issue is not how to restrict immigration but (to use an Israeli term) their absorption.

The high level of social mobility America once had that enabled immigrants to raise their incomes and exploit opportunities is no longer what it once was. The rags to riches stories of earlier generations are going to be harder to achieve, even in a more modest way.

The other challenge is America’s ability to enforce the melting pot ideology of the past. For America to work, its people need a common language, common values and common culture. But at a time when extreme identity politics has taken hold of native Americans, it’s going to be extra hard to convince immigrants to become homogenized Americans.