New green card restrictions likely would’ve excluded Trump and Cuccinelli’s ancestors

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In 1883 Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus” — “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — which is emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty. Had she read the Trump administration’s proposed rule for restricting the legal immigrants who can obtain visas and green cards, Lazarus might have given top Trump administration officials Stephen Miller and Kenneth Cuccinelli painful smacks upside their heads. 

The “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds” rule is more than 800 pages long, but at the core, as explained by White House senior policy advisor Miller, are the following criteria. “Does the applicant speak English? Can they support themselves and their families financially? Do they have a skill that will add to the U.S. economy? Are they being paid a high wage?”

Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, tried to reconcile Miller’s criteria with Lazarus’ poem. He took the phrase “give me your tired, your poor” and added — “who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

“The New Colossus” is not policy and legal immigration has ebbed and flowed throughout American history. But Lazarus, who was devoted to Jewish causes, set a standard by which to judge our compassion as a nation.

Between 1880 and 1924 as many as an estimated 3 million Jews emigrated to the United States from Eastern European and Russia, which were considered by nativists to be the “s-hole countries” of the day. An awful lot of those Jews would have been barred from entering the United States under the Miller criteria.

Consider Tevye, the milkman from the Stories of Sholom Aleichem that are the basis for the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” The musical made the tradition-bound, fatalistic Tevye a cultural proxy for the Russian and Eastern European Jews fleeing anti-Semitism, pogroms and economic oppression who found refuge in the United States. Tevye represents the Jewish Mayflower myth.

The Miller criteria would have sent Tevye back to Russia. There’s no evidence that he spoke English, had any skills other than milking cows, or had spent much time in a classroom. When Tevye sang in the musical “If I were a rich man . . ..” it was because he was poor, like countless Jewish immigrants. The Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society, which was formed in 1881 to help the newly arriving Jews, reported that “emigrants arrive daily; majority incapable of supporting themselves.” 

That was equally true for immigrants of other nationalities and religions. Ironically, enough the Miller criteria probably would also have sent back President Trump’s grandfather, who was a 16-year-old barber and spoke little English when he emigrated from Germany, and Cuccinelli’s great-grandfather, a laborer who emigrated from southern Italy.

The central fallacy underlying the proposed rule is that legal immigrants, unless they are financially independent, are a cost drain on the United States. But the immigrants and their descendants more than repaid the costs of their support by immeasurably benefiting the United States in a host of endeavors. The great waves of immigration are over but it’s still heart-breaking to contemplate how many great scientists, doctors, soldiers, inventors or restauranteurs the new rule will exclude from the American tapestry. 

To return to Lazarus, on May 10, 1903, a story ran in the New-York Tribune about the previous day’s dedication ceremony at the Statue of Liberty of the bronze plaque bearing the “The New Colossus.” The story ended by noting that the poem captures the sympathy that Lazarus had for “the suffering people of her own race, her wider sympathy with all human suffering and oppression seeking relief in coming to these shores, and her faith in American ideals and institutions find expression with exceptional force and beauty.”

By butchering Lazarus’s poem the Trump administration erodes the goodness in America.

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.

Tags Donald Trump green card Gregory J. Wallance Immigration public charge Stephen Miller White House

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