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Outlook: Immigration and the Statue of Liberty's Message

In this June 2, 2009 photo, the Statue of Liberty is seen in New York harbor. The crown is set to open July 4 after being closed since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
In this June 2, 2009 photo, the Statue of Liberty is seen in New York harbor. The crown is set to open July 4 after being closed since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (AP Photo/Richard Drew) (Richard Drew - AP)

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Roberto Suro
Professor, University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication.
Monday, July 6, 2009; 11:00 AM

Roberto Suro, professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, was online Monday, July 6, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article titled 'It Was Never About Those Huddled Masses,' which is about contemporary immigration and the Statue of Liberty's poetic message.

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Mundy is the author of "Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction is Changing Men, Women and the World."

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Roberto Suro: Hello all, and good morning. Thanks for joining me at the Washington Post's online forum. And, thanks in advance for your interest in my essay published Sunday in Outlook on the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus and immigration -- rich and difficult subjects. I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts, answering questions and exchanging ideas. Let's have a conversation.

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Franklin, Maine: Dear Professor Suro -- Your commentary is interesting, but like most of the recent stories about the Statue of Liberty, it did not mention the fact that the Statue was a gift to the United States from the people of France. Also, I believe it is impossible to separate, completely, the concept of liberty enlightening the world from the principle that this country has always been a refuge for people seeking freedom -- in other words, immigrants. Except for the Cherokee, Choctaw, Sioux, et al., we are all immigrants, and grateful for that Open Door. So let us not discard Emma Lazarus' poem, but embrace it.

Roberto Suro: You're right I did neglect to mention that the statue was a gift from the people of France (too much history for one short essay). I did note, however, that one of the statute's first and most enduring meanings was as a monument to the friendship among freedom-loving nations.

And, you make an interesting point -- that the idea of American political values as a source of enlightenment and the idea of America as refuge are inextricably intertwined -- and largely as a result of the mythology of the statue. I tried to disentangled them a little so we could look at them separately. Both are important.

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New York, N.Y.: It is my understanding that in addition to the Puritans who sought religious refuge here, England routinely shipped prisoners, dissenters from Scotland and Ireland, and other undesirables, e.g. Catholics, to our shores. During the Great Potato famine, the Irish Diaspora brought several hundred thousand to the Americas. After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XVI, many of the 250,000 Huguenots who fled France came to our shores. Your comments on the demographics of these major emigrant populations seems to be given short shrift to make your point, which I believe is somewhat overdrawn, or have I exaggerated my own understanding off history?

Roberto Suro: The point I was trying to make is that people fleeing political oppression have only made up one part of the immigrant flow over the years, and in fact a relatively small part. And I was suggesting that this nation's extraordinary political ideals and practices are attractive to immigrants, but are only one part of the nation's appeal. Other factors, particularly, the prospects for economic betterment, have been very powerful as well in drawing people to our shores. My concern is that if you focuses too intently on the poem and the statue as symbols of immigration, you lose sight of the larger picture.

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Jackson, Mich.: The comment about immigrants coming to the United States for economic reasons, not political ones as envisioned by the presenters of the statue, seems to ignore the theory that economic freedom is a necessary requisite to political freedom, or democracy. So, coming to America for economic reasons is a necessary first step to political freedom. Other than that, your article is superior, and greatly appreciated.

Roberto Suro: This is an interesting twist. I suppose you could also argue the opposite: that political freedom is the necessary precondition to economic freedom. I don't know.

But on this I'm certain: the US immigration system as it has been construed in various forms over the past 100 years or so has not made it particularly easy for people to come here if their sole claim is the need to flee political oppression.

And too, it is clear that the original presenters of the statue were not really thinking about immigration much at all.

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Leesburg, Va.: Prof Suro, are you saying that we should disregard an 1883 poem because it is no longer relevant to our society?

Roberto Suro: I'm saying that if you look to that poem as a guide to how we as a nation should manage immigration, be cautious.

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Stevensville, Md.: You state that the original reason for being of the Statue of Liberty had nothing to do with immigration, and I agree. However, that link was made, and has been many times reinforced. The link is now indelible. Having just recently toured Ellis Island and the statue (for the third time in 35 years) I support the connection between "Lady Liberty", Ellis Island, and the historical significance that immigration (via the lure of liberty) played in the development of this great nation. I think you've chosen an argument that few will agree with.

Roberto Suro: You may be absolutely correct that the link is indelible, and that my argument won't be popular. I, too, love going to Ellis Island and the Statue. But, let's all be clear about how the two were linked, when and by whom. Remember that there was no immigrant station at Ellis Island when the statues went up. The two were bound together at a time when we had effectively shut the door which the poem celebrates.

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Nebraska: How can anything be done on immigration if the tops and bottoms of both parties can't see eye to eye? The Republican leadership likes the cheap labor but their base is anti-immigrant; the Democrats want to restrict the labor force but many supporters are "bleeding heart liberals" who decry the discrimination.

Roberto Suro: Immigration is the kind of issue that requires big and complicated compromises. Many different kinds of interests have a stake in immigration. The politics are messy because they don't fit ideological categories or split along party lines. So, moving policy forward effectively requires all kinds of folks to bend a little to find common ground. That's nothing something we as a society have been particularly good at for some years.

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New York, N.Y.: I think a reason why the poem resonates especially in New York City is that many of our ancestors are the "huddled masses", who escaped oppression because of their right, or famine in Ireland and elsewhere, etc. Maybe they were a small percentage of the total, but their stories are true.

Roberto Suro: On your last point: yes, indeed!

All the stories of how our ancestors came here, by whatever means and for whatever reason, are true and deserve to be honored. And all have the power to teach us.

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Bowie, Md.: Why do you suggest divorcing an icon from its iconography? Would you knock the Gettysburg Address off the wall of the Lincoln Memorial because the Civil War had nothing to do with the "government of the people, by the people, and for the people"? The fact is that the Statue does have to do with "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." That is exactly what its French creators, Edouard de Laboulaye and Frederic Bartholdi, had in mind. Indeed, Bartholdi, who lost his native Alsace to the Germans in the War of 1870 in which he served for France, made much the same connection that Emma Lazarus did about his statue:

"I will fight for liberty. I will appeal to free people. I will try to glorify the republic there [in the United States] while I wait for us to recover it at home."

Roberto Suro: Golly, I guess I always thought the Gettysburg Address had a lot to do with the Civil War and in particular the way Lincoln, who was the sitting president not a minor poet, articulated the cause at a critical moment in the conflict.

Coincidentally, the first discussions in France about the statue occurred just after Lincoln's assassination the inspirations for a memorial to liberty was his freeing of the slaves. This actually predates the Franco-Prussian War.

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Miami Beach, Fla.: Prof: You say we will be held to account for how we deal with immigrants once they're here. When I received my green card, DHS included a thin pamphlet with info on obtaining a social security number and applying for citizenship (after five years), but that was about it. Should the US government play a role in "Americanizing" its immigrants?

Roberto Suro: I don't know about "Americanizing," but I certainly think it is worth having a conversation about how much we as a society have at stake in helping immigrants and their children succeed here. I'm not just talking about government but also businesses, churches, schools, and community groups as well. We have undertaken a very substantial effort here with perhaps the largest wave of immigration in our history. And, as you point out, once most people get here, we basically tell them, "Keep your nose clear, and good luck." Because our immigration policy is based primarily on family reunification and employment, we leave folks to fend for themselves. So, let me ask, wouldn't we all benefit with some modestly larger investments in English-language education, for example? Doesn't it make sense to ensure that people who are still learning English can understand their rights and responsibilities when they are dealing with the courts or government agencies?

Coincidentally, the fairly small number of people who are admitted as refugees and the only immigrants who get substantial assistance from the government at least while they are getting settled.

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Detroit, Mich.: Who in France paid for the Statue of Liberty (and did any Americans pay for it), and who donated the island on which it was built?

Roberto Suro: The construction of the statue in France was paid for by donations, charity auctions and concerts, and even a lottery. The construction of the pedestal in New York was similarly done, through private fund raising. Things moved faster in France than here, and a crash effort was required to get the last of the funds for the pedestal. It was led by Joseph Pulitzer, who used the fundraising campaign as a way to drive up circulation for his newspaper, the New York World.

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Roberto Suro: Thank you all, we have reached the end of forum. I am grateful for your interest and your thoughts about a subject that touches us all and that has fascinated me for many many years. I look forward to continuing the conversation on another occasion. All the best, Roberto Suro.

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Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors

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