The Immigrant Nation (Part I)
Mother Of Exiles

by Alma A. Hromic

April 8, 2002


America is a nation of immigrants.

Twist that as you will, every single (modern) American not of Amerind origin can trace their roots, early or late, to an old continent and someone who chose to come to a new world in search of something better, something greater, something freer than what they had left behind. The Mayflower bore the first "immigrants" to these shores. Eventually the thirteen colonies that resulted from that crossing and those that followed would break away in blood and Revolution, and the rest, as they say, is history. But they were all immigrants, those first colonists, and their children who were born in this country were the children of immigrants.

It was only 226 years ago that the Declaration of Independence was signed by the founders of the American nation as we know it today. Only 211 years since the first Congress of the United States of America passed the Bill of Rights. This is a young nation, still brash with its youth, and still not so very far away from its immigrant roots.

And the immigrant tradition has never stopped in America -- it is its immigrants, the old and the new, who made the country what it is today.

It was a fourth-generation descendant of Jewish immigrants, poet and writer Emma Lazarus, who penned the words that were to put an indelible stamp on the American consciousness. Emma was 34 years old when she wrote her sonnet "The New Colossus," initially for an auction benefiting the fund established to provide a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, a gift to the United States from the Republic of France -- one nation born in revolution to another. The Statue of Liberty was not erected until 1886, three years after this auction, and President Grover Cleveland said at the ceremony that the light of Liberty would "...pierce the darkness of man's ignorance and oppression." The famous poem had fallen into obscurity during the years of waiting for the statue to arrive, and Emma herself died the year after Lady Liberty was raised in New York Harbor, never to know the real impact of her words. It was only in 1901, in the new century, four years after the poetess's death, that the bronze plaque bearing the words of "The New Colossus" was added to the base of the statue -- and transformed everything that the Statue of Liberty stood for.

The final few lines are well known, but not necessarily the rest of the poem. Here is the full text of Emma Lazarus's famous sonnet:

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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

The Mother of Exiles, one of America's most famous immigrants, the statue stood calling across the sundering seas and heralding America as the New World, a land of enduring freedom and hope. The initial five lines inscribed on the statue were expanded in 1945 when an engraved plaque bearing the full poem was placed above the Statue of Liberty's main entrance. Emma Lazarus's inspiring words crept into children's textbooks, and were even included in a Broadway musical by that other American icon Irving Berlin, himself an immigrant, born Israel Baline in Russia in 1888.

Initially intended as a gesture of extravagant political propaganda for France, the statue was intended by its creator and its givers to represent a path of enlightenment for a Europe caught in what seemed to be an eternal battle with oppression and tyrannical governments. Instead, re-defined by Lazarus and her sonnet, Lady Liberty became a beacon not for those seeking to battle the tyranny but for those seeking to leave it behind and find a better life. It also re-defined things for the United States in no uncertain way. The first settlers, the first American immigrants, came fleeing the decrees of the crown of England and fought to throw off its controlling influence. Now, with the Statue of Liberty lighting the way, America became the American Dream.

In the shadow of the Statue of Liberty stands another, more tangible, icon of the American Dream and a symbol of American immigrant heritage -- Ellis Island. Opened on January 1, 1892, Ellis Island would become a synonym for so many things, an inspiration for thousands of poems, stories, novels, movies, websites. In the six decades of its existence as an active immigrant processing center, from 1892 until it finally closed its doors in 1954, more than 12 million people would pass through these gates. During its peak years (1892 to 1924) Ellis Island processed thousands of immigrants a day; 11,747 immigrants were admitted on a single day in 1907. First and Second Class passengers had the option of being processed on board their ships -- but those arriving in Third Class and steerage were shepherded into the processing center on Ellis Island, where they were carefully scrutinized for disease or disability (and there are many heartbreaking stories about families torn apart when a youngster with consumption or debilitating handicap was denied entry, forcing terrible choices on new immigrants) and their legal papers were checked. Many had their names changed during this processing procedure; a lot of them did not speak English well, and many spoke practically no English at all. But they came, fleeing hardship and poverty and persecution, and seeking the gold with which they had heard the streets of New York were paved. They often found more poverty and more hardship -- but this was the New World, and their children grew up with the accents of Brooklyn or the Bronx, raised in the freedom of America and ready to reach out and grab that elusive American dream. Many of America's well-known names in entertainment, politics and the arts originated in places like Russia or Lithuania or Ireland -- the Catholics, the Jews, the atheists who sought refuge from the intolerant Gods of the old countries.

In the hundred years prior to 1924, the year when immigration policies changed and the open-door attitude was beginning to be rethought, 34 million immigrants landed on America's soil. Their descendants account for more than 40% of the population of the United States today -- over 100 million Americans. Ironically, it was in 1924 -- the year the tide of immigrants peaked and began to wane at Ellis Island -- that the American Congress passed a law "promoting" all American Indians into United States citizens. The immigrants had decided to allow the indigenous peoples, whom they had persecuted and violated and driven off their land, to finally become a "legitimate" part of what was essentially an artificial political state grafted onto the New World by those who came there centuries after the original inhabitants, who were by this stage mostly safely ensconced in reservations and out of everyone's way.

But this nation, built by immigrants on foreign shores, is also mildly schizophrenic on the whole idea of immigration itself. Those for whom the immigrant heritage is now a couple or ten generations back find it all too easy to espouse the notion that the door, already pushed almost closed by bureaucracy and red tape, should be properly shut and carefully locked against any further invasions from outside. America for the Americans, as it were (although the concept of what, precisely, an "American" is under any given set of definitions could be the subject of another essay just as long as this one...).

Statistics from the Center for Immigration Studies show that just under 3 million immigrants are on record as having entered the United States in the period between 1998 and 2000, with more than 2 million arriving in 1996 and 1997. On average, this means that more than a million people are entering the country as (legitimate) immigrants every year. The illegals are another story altogether. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is now estimating the number of "illegal aliens" living in the United States at anything up to eleven million people, a number increasing by 500,000 people a year. An estimated 60% of these people come across the borders the United States share with Canada and Mexico; the rest are so-called "overstayers" who enter legally with a valid visa but fail to leave before it expires. In total, more than 28 million immigrants -- that is, recent immigrants -- now live in the United States, as pointed out by Steven Camarota in his article "Immigrants in the United States - 2000: A Snapshot of America's Foreign-Born Population." This is the largest number ever recorded in the history of the United States, and a whopping 43% increase on the 1990 numbers. Essentially this means that one in ten Americans living in the country today is foreign-born (Steven Camarota underlines that the words "foreign-born" and "immigrant" are used interchangeably in his article).

Writer Alan Coruba, in an essay published in April 2001, says that these figures mean that immigration is "out of control" and that America has "lost control over its borders. He quotes all of Steven Camarota's statistics, and then some -- the 11 million immigrants who have streamed into the country in the ten-year period of 1990-2000, when added to the more than 6 million children born to immigrants already living here, account for, according to Mr. Caruba, almost 70% of the population growth in America during the past decade. What, inquires Mr. Coruba, are the implications of these figures -- "what is this doing," he asks "to all aspects of life in America today....and tomorrow?"

There are problems to this high immigration rate, that is not in question. But Coruba goes on to list them with what is almost glee. He offers statistics and percentages with gay abandon -- 30% of our immigrants do not have a high-school diploma (more than three times the rate for Native Americans, i.e., the Indian population); more than twice the number of immigrant households, again as compared to Native American populations, are on welfare programs; immigrants represent 25% of the prison population; one third of all immigrants do not possess health insurance, a rate two and half times higher than that of Native Americans. All of this is quoted to disparage what Coruba sees as the rosy outlook of publications such as USA Today, which ran a series of articles about how immigrants have reinvigorated life in the United States and helped restore American cities.

Coruba's statistics may be true and accurate -- but are they relevant? If we are talking about prison populations, why are we looking just at -- how shall we put this -- the rates of incarceration in new immigrants (those arriving within the last five years, say) and "old" immigrants (whose parents, grandparents or great-grandparents were the ones who first set foot into this country)? Does living in America for twenty, forty or eighty years inculcate virtue into the populations? What then shall we say about the disproportion of black versus white inmates, and on what basis shall we determine virtue there? After all, the black inmates are probably descended in some distant manner from the slaves brought into this country a few generations ago -- they are not by any stretch of the imagination "new" immigrants, so why are so many of them behind bars in today's America? And how is it helpful to compare new immigrants to the American Indian population, whose situation is an artificial one created by the "immigrants" who came and took over their country a couple of centuries ago? How can you have a helpful comparison when you are comparing the statistics for the newest of new immigrants and the only legitimate "indigenous" population on this continent?

According to Coruba, what all this translates to is an increased tax burden for education and other public services. "We have been importing poverty," he says. "We have been importing people who show up at the emergency rooms of America's hospitals because they cannot afford medical care."

A statistics comparison between some of the new immigrants and some of the American-born elderly who happen to suffer from the sin of not being wealthy might be instructive at this point, with many retirees unable to afford the costs of insurance at the very times in their lives when they most need it. But this would be counterproductive to Coruba's argument, and he does not address the point at all.

Coruba has more statistics. Immigrants, he says, now comprise 12.8% of the nation's workforce. He does not specify what sort of work these immigrants are engaged in, but his statement that nearly 30% of these workers did not have a high school diploma and 34.4% were school dropouts appears to point to the fact that many of the jobs that these immigrants are engaged in could be on the level of cleaning bus station toilets. He also points out that nearly 11% of the more highly educated immigrants -- those who come in the legal way through visas, red tape and job offers -- hold a graduate or professional degree, compared to 9.3% of native-born Americans. These two sets of statistics, although related on the surface, do not have much to do with each other -- and how, from this evidence, Coruba leaps to the conclusion that America has imported a huge population of "under-educated people" to its shores is a little hard to follow.

Coruba appears to advocate that the United States should deal with its own (native born) population living on the poverty line before it "imports" still more unfortunates to join their ranks -- which is an admirable idea. However, America is a country where individual health insurance remains out of reach for millions, where the homeless sleep in cardboard boxes or in inner-city doorways, and where people try to eke out a living at sub-minimum wages while holding down three jobs -- and where, at the same time, profit remains the bottom line of every business (with people discarded and abandoned if the bottom line isn't met) and where CEOs earn salaries which would support hundreds of immigrant families.

Many of America's newest immigrants, states Coruba, arrive from cultures where "democracy is not as ingrained as the freedoms embodied in our Bill of Rights." It is bad enough, he says, that most Americans have no real idea about what the Bill of Rights guarantees; the problem grows worse, he says dismissively, when you include the "thousands of illegal immigrants who cannot even read the Constitution." They were good enough when they came by the thousands and stood mute and uncomprehending in the processing halls of Ellis Island -- but those that come in their wake had better speak flawless English, have perfect teeth so that they won't require the services of a cosmetic dentist to provide the immaculate American smile, and know how to program a computer, or else the American Dream does not apply.

"It's time," says Coruba, "to rethink the words of Emma Lazarus's famous poem... These words represent the America of 1886 and of Ellis Island that existed between 1892 and 1924, but America is a very different nation, living in a very different era. That was then. This is now."

Then, the Statue of Liberty, Mother of Exiles, stood with her torch beside the "golden door," lighting the way. Now, the door is shut, and the torch is out. There is, apparently, no more room at the inn.


Carry on to Part II of this essay.



Out of Control Immigration, Alan Caruba, The National Anxiety Center

Immigrants in the United States - 2000 A Snapshot of America's Foreign-Born Population, Steven A. Camarota, Center for Immigration Studies

Ellis Island History


       Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. However she has lived outside her native country for much of her life: Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa, the UK and New Zealand. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her last novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, was published in September 2001 by Harper Collins. Last January, Hromic won the much coveted BBC online short story competition. Her story, The Painting, was broadcast in the UK in the last week of January 2001.

         Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Alma A. Hromic 2002. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.


This Week's Internal Links

Shepherding Us Into History's Charnel House - by Stephen Gowans

The Time The Great Ogre Hacked And Spit - by Milo Clark

Peekaboo - by Michael Stowell

America Through The Looking Glass - by David McGowan

A Verbal Analogy - Mind : Body :: Illusion : Reality - by Philip Greenspan

The Untouchable Israelis - by Deck Deckert

An Open Letter To Jewish Americans - by Assaf Oron

What Price Middle East Peace? - by Dr. Alfred M. Lilienthal

Food. More. Now. - by Jan Baughman

Orenda - Poem by Sandy Lulay

You're Dead Mister. Dead. - by Dalton Trumbo (Book Excerpt)


Alma Hromic on Swans

Essays published in 2002 | 2001

On the Anniversary (September 2000)

Subject: Into Myth (September 2000)

Sadness in Novi Sad, Serbia (April 2000)


Published April 8, 2002
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