Whose huddled masses?

October 23, 2015

“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!”



Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, The New Colossus, is still engraved on a plaque in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. But as an epic expression of the positive American attitude towards mass immigration, it is almost as obsolete as the horse-drawn carriages that plied the streets of New York in 1883, when it was written.


True, even then there raged a fierce debate over immigration policy — but the facts speak for themselves in regard to the scale of immigration to the US in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and the record speaks for itself in terms of the impact of these immigrants on every aspect of American society, economy and subsequent development.


How far the US has changed its attitude towards immigration may best be measured not by Donald Trump’s virulent diatribes against Mexican immigrants in his election campaign, but by the Democratic, supposedly liberal and open, Obama Administration’s response to the world’s greater and more urgent migration crisis this year — from Asia and Africa to Europe. Last month, John Kerry announced a significant increase in the number of people the US will accept for refugee resettlement — from 70,000 in the fiscal year just ended (September 30), to “at least” 85,000 in fiscal 2016 and to 100,000 in 2017.


When compared to the German readiness (in August — more recently the tune has changed…) to accept 800,000 refugees this year, the American response seems mean. But most 21st century immigrants to the US do not see the Statue of Liberty’s lit lamp beside the golden door, because they arrive across the Rio Grande or over the barriers erected in the country’s south-west. In other words, while the Europeans are floundering in the face of the Afro-Asian wave, the Americans have their hands full struggling with Latin American immigration.


The greater question, however, is why the Europeans and Americans are ‘struggling’ with — and in many cases fighting against — immigration. Especially in the case of the US, most of whose citizens have only a few generations of American pedigree, the anti-immigrant attitudes seem especially strange. As for the Europeans, many of whose nations are already shrinking in absolute terms and all of which are threatened by a rapidly-shifting demographic profile, the case for “importing” large numbers of young, able-bodied immigrants seems obvious and the advantages — especially to today’s older generation — clear-cut.


Yet rational analysis has played little part in the developing immigration ‘debate’, if such it may be called, in Europe. Indeed, the surge in positive attitude, which included Germany’s pledge to open its doors wide, was itself driven by an irrational development — the wave of sympathy for the refugees, sparked by a single image — that of a drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy on a Turkish beach. Inevitably, this upsurge in sympathy faded and a reaction of anti-immigrant sentiment rose to the fore.


Against these massive swings in public opinion, it is not surprising that governments are as much at sea as the wretched refuse teeming on the shores of Asia Minor, Greece and the strip of sea between them. There is no clear policy and very little clear thinking. The European public, battered by years of austerity and yet coddled by cradle-to-grave welfare statism, are embittered by the former and scared of losing the latter. Most of them take the easier path of antagonism toward the people representing the potential threat, rather than embracing a source of potential regeneration of their countries and societies.


Now, far too late, the argument that Europe should have invested massively in the development of the countries whence the immigrants flee, is getting a wide hearing. But even then, the response is pathetic and risible. EU ministers pompously announce programs committing one, or a few billions of euros to this or that country or region. These amounts are the financial embodiment of the graphic but accurate phrase “pissing into the wind”, and the results will accord with the metaphor.


A fascinating aspect of the immigration crisis and its coverage is that while there is frequent reference to the US experience of being a nation of immigrants, there is virtually no mention of the Israeli experience. The fact that Israel is today, to a greater extent even than Hong Kong and Singapore, an example of how homeless and  huddled masses can be transformed into a functioning polity and society, with a developed economy and a high standard of living — that fact is almost entirely absent from the discussion.


On second thoughts, though, the Europeans — and even the Americans — may be correct in ignoring Israel. In order to successfully integrate the wretched refuse, you have to offer something greater than a job, a home and a social safety net. Those are undoubtedly necessary, but nonetheless insufficient. America once and Israel still today offers those yearning to breathe free an ideal that can motivate them not merely to immigrate to the country, but also to be absorbed into its society.

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