Around the base of the Statue of Liberty are engraved the final five lines of Emma Lazarus’s immortal poem, “The New Colossus,” which I memorized in the spring of 1976 as I prepared for my Bicentennial-themed grade-school graduation. It goes like this:
Give me your tired, your poor;
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free;
the retched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
These words must never leave us. But they should never manipulate us into casting open the doors to anyone and everyone who would cross our borders. We should recognize that US residency and citizenship are privileges, not rights, but we should never build walls without gates in them.
We should take the tired and poor, but we should never be a home for the lazy and indolent. This is the land of opportunity, not the land of the free ride. We can afford to build a social safety net, but the tree of liberty cannot support a hammock.
Some immigrants show up in America, gird their loins, work hard, and are a blessing for nation. For these, we should always be a refuge: we must build a gateway for entry, and pave a pathway to citizenship. And we must always give children the benefit of the doubt.
Other immigrants, unfortunately, are little more than a burden on a society overtaxed to provide for its own. These are not just freeloaders on public services, but gang members and criminals. We should not – we cannot – be a haven for these. Our nation and its states simply cannot afford it. For these, the pathway is not to citizenship, but to a return to the place from which they came.
Our challenge is to translate these principles into equitable policy. But that should be the basis of our debate, not an argument over whether to build walls or shackle the Border Patrol.