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Statue of Liberty: An Anniversary

Statue of Liberty (Photo: Dominique James, flickr)

Statue of Liberty (Photo: Dominique James, flickr)

“Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses……”

Friday, October 28 marks the 125th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. The original dedication was held on the afternoon of October 28, 1886. President Grover Cleveland, the former New York governor, presided. A parade was held in New York City. Estimates of the number of people who watched it range from several hundred thousand to a million.

This 151 foot,one inch statue was a gift of France.  During the festivities, a French flag was draped over the statue’s face and was supposed to be lowered to unveil the statue at the close of a speech.  However, a pause was apparently mistaken by a stage hand as the speech’s conclusion and so the flag fell prematurely. The cheers that followed abruptly ended the address.

I’m tempted to wonder whether those cheers were prescient.  Were they rejoicing for the undraping of a new American icon or a symbolic fall of the French flag’s namesake, eventually opposing our foreign policy? During the post-9/11 years, the term “freedom fries” was substituted for French fries in the United States as a result of anti-French sentiment toward the U.S. decision to launch the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Some historical context: French fries were not always political footballs of the pallet. A Franco-American alliance was formed in 1778 between Louis XVI’s France and the United States, during the American Revolutionary War. France helped significantly to expel the British aggressors from the still fragile United States. The Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, recognizing American independence and the end of a hostile relationship.

In the years preceding the dedication of the statue, the relationship between France and the United States was quite healthy and positive.  This was represented by the statue as a gift. The The Statue of Liberty was presented in 1884 as a gift to the United States from the French people. From 1870 until 1918, France was the only major republic in Europe which maintained a strong relationship with the United States. It admired the United States as a land of opportunity and as a source of modern ideas.

We’ve since come to our American senses.  Among our modern ideas is to put French fries back on the menu across America to join their crowned Lady-in-good-standing. The Treaty is again alive and well.

In a summoning to the disen-French-ised of the world, Lady Liberty offers shelter to those seeking a better life across the globe.  Yet, the current debate and emerging states’ policy toward immigration in the United States belies this open invitation.

The great French writer Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote “The social condition of the Americans is eminently democratic; this was its character at the foundation of the colonies, and it is still more strongly marked at the present day”.

Despite this “democratic eminence” our immigration policy has not been so welcoming. According to Immigration Impact, thousands of people flee persecution annually, seeking safety here in the United States. Many invest life savings in this perilous sojourn, risking life to arrive on our shores with not much more than the clothes on their backs.

As of March 2010, 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants were living in the United States according to new estimates from the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center.  This figure is unchanged from the prior year. New data indicate that the current population of unauthorized immigrants has become an integral part of the social and economic fabric of the United States. In fact, three-fifths of unauthorized immigrants have been in the United States for more than a decade. Unauthorized immigrants comprise more than one-quarter of the foreign-born population and roughly 1-in-20 workers. Approximately 4.5 million native-born U.S.-citizen children have at least one unauthorized parent.

As I mentioned in a previous essay, it is flat out inaccurate to frame this issue as solely a question of how to “manage” the 11 to 12 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States, especially at the border alone. In fact, this situation pertains to a much broader range of issues.  These include a lack of sufficient numbers of visas which are made available to bring in skilled labor, artificial and arbitrary visa caps, and an inadequate government infrastructure to respond effectively and humanely to those seeking the American Dream.

Those who flee foreign oppression are no different than the 20,000 Puritan settlers of New England between 1629 and 1642.  Those braves souls founded multiple colonies to be free from England’s Charles I persecution of religious dissenters.  He was strong believer in the notion of rule by divine right.

In the United States, a lack of a comprehensive federal solution has created a range of lopsided, enforcement-only initiatives that have cost the country billions of dollars with harsher and harsher laws being put in place among the states.

Persecution has now taken root on the “teeming shore beside the golden door” among our states. Alabama now has the toughest but contested immigration law in the nation. The law took effect on September 29, creating turmoil hundreds of families. The disruption has caused these families to pull their children from school and workers to disappear from Alabama farms hurting the regional economy.  A federal appeals court has since blocked some provisions. However, the issue is far from settled.

A currently prevailing myth is that immigrants are more likely to commit crime or pose a danger to society. Studies repeatedly disprove this utter nonsense. Nevertheless, it is used to exploit the public’s fear of crime to justify ever more punitive immigration measures, including the mass incarceration of immigrants for reasons that would never be permitted for U.S. citizens.  This is an egregious act and national embarrassment.

The first line of this essay comes from “The New Colossus,” a sonnet by Emma Lazarus, written in 1883 and, in 1903, engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the Statue of Liberty.  On this important anniversary in our growth as a nation, let’s be reminded of its words.

“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!”

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Thomas P. Davis

Thomas P. Davis

I'm a freelance writer based in New Jersey. I've been writing about public issues for 10 years.