Trump to Immigrants: Bring money. But a ‘Means Test’ for Newcomers Destroys the Meaning of a Land of Opportunity

The moral abomination who currently occupies the oval office has done it again. He has appointed somebody to an important government position who hates the very service that his department has always provided for the betterment of the nation.

What does his latest ‘pick-a-willing-stooge’ appointment to high federal office — acting Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli — fail to understand about “a nation of immigrants” and the history of this country’s founding and subsequent growth, development, and astonishing success.

Or rather what doesn’t he fail to understand?

According to the US Census Bureau, 2 percent of our country’s population consists of Native Americans (6.6 million as of 2015). That means 98 percent of census-counted Americans came from somewhere else — i.e., we are (almost) all of immigrant stock.

In the service, however, not only of historical amnesia, but of his enabler’s sadistic taste for punishing those in need, the new immigration services boss decided to rewrite Emma Lazarus’s famous poem that celebrates the Statue of Liberty and concludes with these oft-quoted nation-building 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!”

But according to the new Tump-puppet’s rewrite, those lines should read: “Give me your tired and your poor, who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

New immigrant boss Cuccinelli’s ignorant assumption drew a quick rebuttal from Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Sonia Nazario, who pointed out, correctly, “The reality is that immigrants who come here legally are no more likely to be on welfare than people who are born in this country. … The reality is that immigrants who have come to this country, whether they are poor or rich, are what have made America great.”

Since Trump’s appointees are famously ignorant of history or the mission of the agency they’ve been given stewardship of in order to further the occupant of the White House’s nasty, small-minded prejudices, let’s look at the history of how the United States came to be. Whose view of immigration is better supported by the facts — that of Lazarus’s beloved poem? Or Cuccinelli’s Trump-twisted version?

The nation’s most famous European immigrants, the Pilgrims, were surely ‘tired’ after the hardships of a 17th century Atlantic voyage. They were ‘poor’ after spending whatever funds they had assembled on commissioning and provisioning a ship for the voyage. They had “huddled” beneath decks of their not terribly ocean-worthy vessel during the storms of the North Atlantic. And I’m sure they were yearning for a breath of fresh air, though they would have been happier about the New World’s open-air accommodations if they hadn’t arrived in winter. And they were literally a match for another of the famous poem’s depictions: “homeless” and “tempest-tost.”

As for ‘standing on their own two feet,’ many of them could barely walk off the ship. Some remained on it all winter. The group’s survivors soon received valuable assistance from Plymouth’s indigenous residents who, despite suffering terrible losses of their own from plague germs brought by prior contacts with Europeans, taught the new arrivals what crops to grow and how to grow them. And at that famous harvest-time “first Thanksgiving,” it was the Indians who supplied most of the food.

In the wake of the first scattered immigrant societies in New England, New York, and Virginia, migrants from England, Scotland, Holland, Germany and other European countries founded the colonies from which grew the nation that became known as the United States of America. Some of them arrived with sufficient wealth to ‘stand on their own feet’ economically, perhaps after the sea-sickness wore off. Many others relied on the assistance provided by religious or national communities already here.

No ‘immigrant policies’ decided whether they would be granted admittance or not. They took their chances, risked their lives, in coming to a foreign shore. Some prospered; some faltered. But you certainly could not predict who would or would not become valuable contributors to society based on what was found, or not found, in their pockets on the day of their arrival.

The immigration policy apparently favored by Trump and his latest mean-spirited acolyte — requiring new immigrants to demonstrate that they had the means to support themselves in their new country; a requirement generally known as “a means test” — flies in the face of history.

Unlike the spoiled occupant of the White House, who was born rich and therefore assumes only rich people are valuable members of society, the majority of of this nation’s most important, famous, creative, patriotic and otherwise valuable contributors would not have passed “a means test” when they arrived in America.

If a means test were applied to immigrants in those early days, would David Carnegie, a poor Scottish immigrant, have been allowed off the boat? JP Morgan was a 19th century financial tycoon, railroad baron, and symbol of wealth in the first Gilded Age (we’re unhappily enduring the second one right now), but his early immigrant ancestor was just another soldier of fortune when he arrived from Wales in 1636. Ben Franklin’s ancestors were 17th century English Puritans seeking religious freedom in a new land; they did not arrive with full purses.

Henry Knox, whose brilliant military leadership was responsible for driving the British out of Boston in 1776 and who later became George Washington’s Secretary of War, was the descendant of Ulster immigrants. His father was a ship builder who came to Boston in the early 18th century because he went broke back at home. Not likely, then, to pass a means test. But America’s Revolutionary War might have played out differently without his son’s contribution.

So many of America’s essential nation builders descended from people who not would not have been permitted to enter this country if arriving with a sufficient nest egg were the criterion for entrance. Andrew Jackson, a scourge to Native Americans but an apostle of universal male suffrage — back when that goal was the definition of democracy — grew up in poverty. Abraham Lincoln, still the greatest of the nation’s public servants, grew up in legendarily humble circumstances. Lyndon Johnson, whose political leadership assured the country’s only meaningful Civil Rights legislation, also grew up poor.

Delving deeper, among the major 19th and early 20th century immigrant groups, the migrants from an economically devastated Ireland, to take a justly celebrated example, would not have passed a means test. A few decades later the descendants of those who endured poverty on both sides of the Atlantic were serving as mayors and governors of major cities in states such as New York and Boston. John F. Kennedy may have grown up in wealthy circumstances, but his ancestors did not.

The same general truth applies to the Italian, Jewish, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Slavic and other Eastern European immigrants who migrated here in the second great wave of immigration from 1880 to 1920. Both farm prices and the fishing industry were collapsing in southern Italy, when millions of Italians arrived on these shoes. Jews were escaping violent repression in Russia and Poland and other European countries.

Chinese immigrants came here — like their European counterparts — fleeing famine and seeking work. They found it digging the rail beds for the first continental railroad, just as the Irish before them dug the Erie Canal and worked on the early East Coast railroads.

Political and economic oppression, the absence of opportunity, drove the poor and the vulnerable from unfriendly societies to the country that most singularly represented the availability of freedom and opportunity. People do not leave their homes on a whim but because they are driven by poverty, political oppression, and in many cases by clear existential threats to their future survival.

Beneath the Statue of Liberty, whose meaning was so lastingly interpreted by Lazarus’s poem, New York City’s Ellis Island received millions of newcomers who would not have passed “a means test” to prove that they could ‘stand on their own feet’ upon arrival.

Irving Berlin, a Russian Jewish Immigrant, arrived on Ellis Island in 1893. Where would popular American music be without “White Christmas” and “God Bless America,” his 19 Broadway shows, and many movie scores?

Ettore Boiardi arrived from his home town of Piacenza, Italy and found work at New York’s Plaza Hotel in 1914. He eventually pioneered the product line of canned Italian pasta and sauces through his company known as “Chef Boy-ar-dee.”

Mother Cabrini arrived at Ellis Island in 1894, sent by the Pope to better the lives of poor Italian immigrants, and succeeded in establishing orphanages, schools and hospitals across the country. It was not because she brought bags of money with her. Miracles happen when a society permits talent, creativity, intelligence, diligence — and, perhaps, faith — to go to work.

That society does not at first demand, ‘Let me see your bank account.’

Albert Einstein left Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1921. He wasn’t there for the Nazis; he was here for Roosevelt.

Who will be there for us in the future, if the rules of the Abominable Regime hold sway over American immigration policy, as they have already flouted all human decency on the Southern Border?

We should take care to remember the poem, Emma Lazarus’s poem, the way she wrote it, and bury the Trump-dummy’s revision with the scorn it deserves

The poem is an icon of American values. Those values are what makes America ‘great’ — not the bombs or the billions piled up by the corporate oligarchs. The market value of Amazon or Facebook — or Trump Enterprises, if in fact that entity has any value — are worth little or nothing in the long run. Material fortunes bloom, and disappear.

The words, and meanings, of Emma Lazarus’s poem are worth everything. We forget that at our peril.

If the current regime of the small-minded hater-in-charge holds sway much longer, the good ol’ USA runs the risk of becoming just another authoritarian corporate state. Where ‘the means’ matter, and the meanings don’t — such as Russia, or China, or North Korea or Saudi Arabia.

Who’d want to immigrate there?

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store