The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Photo by Derek Jensen via Wikimedia Commons
The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Photo by Derek Jensen via Wikimedia Commons

The Statue of Liberty in New York harbor beckons the world’s “huddled masses yearning to be free,” but many Americans want nothing to do with immigrants, at least if their online comments can be believed.

With Republicans threatening a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security Friday over President Obama’s order deferring deportation for 5 million, it’s instructive to read though some of the anti-immigrant comments on virtually any article online about the issue. Here’s a sampling:

  • “Close the border, don’t let them in.”
  • “All illegal aliens are criminals and parasites regardless of how they got here. Every last one of them need to be arrested upon detection and then deported.”
  • “California might as well be part of Mexico. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting an illegal there. Illegals cost the state $Billions…”
  • “We don’t need the lawbreakers (and they are ALL lawbreakers which means that they are ALL CRIMINALS)…”
  • “We citizens will gladly go and round them up. Cut off housing, arrest them when they come in for medical care, pick them up at our schools, we can do more workplace raids, etc. Keep up such an environment of fear that they can’t stand being here anymore.”

Americans have always been ambivalent about immigration. Even a statesman as forward thinking as Benjamin Franklin was worried about German immigrants, writing in 1751, “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them.”

Successive waves of immigrants, from Germans to Irish to Scandinavians to Italians to Jews, successively stoked fears over more than two centuries. In the 20th century, industrialist Henry Ford was famously anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic, though luckily he wasn’t able to keep Albert Einstein and other Jewish refugee scientists from becoming citizens and giving America the atomic bomb. Now the anti-immigrant fear and anger is focused on Hispanic immigration.

Why the anger? It’s mostly about economics.

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, leader of what The Wall Street Journal refers to not uncritically as the “deportation caucus” in Congress, summarizes his anti-immigrant thinking this way:

“The President is providing an estimated 5 million illegal immigrants with social security numbers, photo IDs and work permits — allowing them to now take jobs directly from struggling Americans during a time of record immigration, low wages, and high joblessness.”

Emma Lazarus‘ poem inscribed on the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty says nothing about jobs or whether immigrants are legal. It ends with these famous lines:

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!

Many of the anti-immigrant comments online use similar words — but with very different intent.

Sunday night at the Oscars, “Birdman” director Alejandro Inarritu, a Mexican citizen who has worked extensively in Hollywood, endured an insensitive jab from Sean Penn about his immigration status, then graciously called on Americans to treat recent immigrants with “…the same dignity and respect as the ones that came before and built this incredible immigrant nation.”

Chris Jennewein is editor and publisher of Times of San Diego.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.