The Huddled Masses Were Never Welcome

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Photo by Paul Sableman | CC BY 2.0

Trump adviser Stephen Miller made headlines last month when he openly repudiated the words at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This Emma Lazarus verse is regularly regarded as the embodiment of U.S. generosity toward migrants and refugees. Schoolchildren learn it, and many commentators have invoked it to denounce the current administration’s attempts at ethnic cleansing. But while Trump’s xenophobia is extreme, it’s well within the historic parameters of anti-immigrant policy in this country.

Noble rhetoric notwithstanding, the “huddled masses” have rarely been welcomed into the United States. Our economic and political system has always depended upon the exclusion or subordination of certain people based on class, race, gender, religion, and other factors, and our immigration laws have played a central role in preserving these inequalities. Resisting racism requires that we confront not just Trumpism but the broader elite consensus of exclusion and exploitation.

A State of Exclusion

When the “Founding Fathers” declared that “all men are created equal,” they of course meant only white, property-owning men. The Declaration of Independence expressed open contempt for “the merciless Indian savages” who occupied the lands coveted by European settlers. The Constitution maintained the legal enslavement of black people, which would last…

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