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Fact-checking the Stephen Miller-Jim Acosta exchange on immigration

We look into key claims made in an immigration debate between White House aide Stephen Miller and CNN's Jim Acosta. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

A reader asked us to fact-check a recent debate between CNN correspondent Jim Acosta and White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller during the Aug. 2, 2017, White House briefing. The Fact Checker is not a media critic, and we generally do not fact-check members of the media — certainly not the opinions of individual journalists.

But this contentious exchange, which went on for seven minutes, contained some assertions that are relevant to the current immigration debate. Let’s look at three key moments, and whether they got their facts right.

The Facts

Jim Acosta: “What you’re proposing, or what the president’s proposing, here, does not sound like it’s in keeping with American tradition when it comes to immigration. The Statue of Liberty says: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’
It doesn’t say anything about speaking English or being able to be a computer programmer. Aren’t you trying to change what it means to be an immigrant coming into this country, if you’re telling them, ‘You have to speak English’? Can’t people learn how to speak English when they get here?”
Stephen Miller: “Well, first of all, right now it’s a requirement that to be naturalized, you have to speak English. So the notion that speaking English wouldn’t be a part of immigration systems would be, actually, very ahistorical.
Secondly … the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of liberty enlightening the world. It’s a symbol of American liberty enlightening the world. The poem that you’re referring to was added later. It’s not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.”

At issue is the proposed Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, which would create a points system for employment-based green cards, so that people applying for visas would need to meet certain requirements. One of the requirements in the bill, backed by President Trump, is English language proficiency.

Miller is correct that English proficiency currently is a requirement for naturalization. (There is an exemption for certain people.) English-speaking abilities among green-card holders vary. Some green-card holders arrived in the United States when they were young, and grew up speaking English. Others may not be as familiar, including recent refugees or asylees, or people who arrived with marriage visas. Not all green-card holders pursue citizenship.

Neither got it quite right about the Statue of Liberty. The statue, indeed, was a gift from France as a symbol of liberty enlightening the world — not about immigration. Of course, racism and discrimination against African Americans did not end with the dedication of this statue, as the National Park Service noted. And just four years before its dedication, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law — the first time that federal law specifically blocked entry of an ethnic group. The law remained in place until 1943.

Acosta quoted from the sonnet “The New Colossus,” which was engraved on the plaque at the base of the statue 16 years after it was dedicated. While the poem itself was not a part of the original statue, it actually was commissioned in 1883 to help raise funds for the pedestal.

The sonnet gave another layer of meaning to the statue beyond its abolitionist message. The poet James Russell Lowell claimed the poem “gives its subject a raison d’etre which it wanted before quite as much as it wants a pedestal,” the New York Times found. According to the biographer of Emma Lazarus, the poet: “Emma Lazarus was the first American to make any sense of this statue.”

Miller: “In 1970, when we let in 300,000 people a year, was that violating or not violating the Statue of Liberty law of the land? In the 1990s, when it was half a million a year, was it violating or not violating the Statue of Liberty law of the land? Look, tell me what years … meet Jim Acosta’s definition of the Statue of Liberty law of the land. So you’re saying a million a year is the Statue of Liberty number; 900,000 violates it; 800,000 violates it?”
Acosta: “You’re sort of bringing a ‘press one for English’ philosophy here to immigration, and that’s never been what the United States has been about.”
Miller: “But your statement’s also shockingly ahistorical in another respect, too, which is if you look at the history of immigration, it’s actually ebbed and flowed. We’ve had periods of very large waves, followed by periods of less immigration, and more immigration.”

Miller is correct. Immigration levels ebbed and flowed throughout U.S. history, and the flow was controlled through restrictive legislation until 1965.

Since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the United States through legislation has blocked large swaths of people from entering the country based on race, religion or ideology. The Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese labor immigration, in the face of growing nativism and competition with American workers. These restrictions significantly cut down Chinese immigration — not just laborers — into the United States until the law was repealed 61 years later.

Congress enacted the first widely restrictive immigration law in 1917, amid national security concerns during World War I. Then came the 1924 Immigration Act, aimed at immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, which also excluded Asian immigrants and placed a quota on how many immigrants from a given country would be allowed entry.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 gave broad powers to the president to suspend entry of “any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States [who] would be detrimental to the interests of the United States,” for however long he deems necessary. It was a fear of communists that drove Congress to give this power to the president over six decades ago.

President Harry S. Truman vetoed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, but Congress overrode Truman with a bipartisan, veto-proof majority. Truman wrote in his veto statement: “It repudiates our basic religious concepts, our belief in the brotherhood of man, and in the words of St. Paul that ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free …. for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (We wrote about this here.)

Until 1965, a national origins quota system favored immigrants from Europe, according to Pew Research Center. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act replaced that system with one that emphasized family reunification and skilled immigrants.

“At the time, relatively few anticipated the size or demographic impact of the post-1965 immigration flow,” according to Pew. “In absolute numbers, the roughly 59 million immigrants who arrived in the U.S. between 1965 and 2015 exceed those who arrived in the great waves of European-dominated immigration during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Between 1840 and 1889, 14.3 million immigrants came to the U.S., and between 1890 and 1919, an additional 18.2 million arrived.”

Acosta: “But this whole notion of, ‘Well, they could learn — you know, they have to learn English before they get to the United States,’ are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?”
Miller: “Jim, it’s — actually — I honestly say I am shocked at your statement that you think that only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English. It reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree, that in your mind — no, this is an amazing, this is an amazing moment. This is an amazing moment, that you think only people from Great Britain or Australia would speak English. It’s so insulting to millions of hard-working immigrants who do speak English from all over the world.”

Miller has the edge here. English is an official language in dozens of countries other than Great Britain and Australia, and is spoken in roughly 100 countries. It is the most commonly studied foreign language in the world.

Of course, the longer immigrants stay in the United States and assimilate, the more likely they are to learn English. About 45 percent of new immigrants who have lived in the United States five years or less are proficient in English, according to Pew. Compare that to 55 percent of immigrants who lived in the United States for 20 years or more who are English proficient.

The question over English proficiency among prospective legal immigrants is a major part of the immigration debate. There is a myth that earlier waves of immigrants learned English quickly but recent immigrants are less willing to do so, according to a 2010 research bulletin by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. The data show that was not the case.

Even among Germans who immigrated to Wisconsin in the 20th century, “many immigrants and their descendants remained monolingual, decades after immigration had ceased. Even those who claimed to speak English often had limited command,” according to researchers from the Western Illinois University and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“German continued to be the primary language in numerous Wisconsin communities, and some second- and third-generation descendants of immigrants were still monolingual as adults. Understanding this history can help inform contemporary debates about language and immigration and help dismantle the myth that successful immigrant groups of yesterday owed their prosperity to an immediate, voluntary shift to English,” the researchers wrote.

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Share the Facts
Washington Post rating logo Washington Post Rating:
Not quite right
"What the president’s proposing here, does not sound like it’s in keeping with American tradition when it comes to immigration. The Statue of Liberty says: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’"
during a White House briefing
Wednesday, August 2, 2017
Share the Facts
Washington Post rating logo Washington Post Rating:
Needs context
"The poem that you’re referring to was added later. It’s not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.”
during a White House briefing
Wednesday, August 2, 2017