Statue of Liberty hugging a small child

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “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-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

These words (“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus) are set engraved in bronze at the first level of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. The Mother of Exiles, holding her torch high for all to see and stepping away from the chains of slavery, literally, has long been a potent symbol of the American idea of liberty and is often depicted as the physical embodiment of our sense of acceptance and pride in being a nation built by the labor of people from all over the world.

This is what America was meant to be. And for many, it still is. Like all of its history, America is a nation where immigrants come from all around the world to start a new life. This hasn’t always been done humanely – and there are plenty of people who did not come to our shores willingly to start a new life – but immigration is the cornerstone of America’s history and development as a global superpower. Even though immigration is our backbone, the very concept has been attacked relentlessly throughout American history, usually through the lens of our long and deeply entrenched history of racism: the Ku Klux Klan promoted racist attitudes toward Irish Catholics when the KKK wasn’t busy lynching innocent Black people that is; a whole party calling themselves the “American Party” was built on anti-immigration policies; Asian migrants were pushed away when the railroad companies decided they were done exploiting them to blow up the Rockies; Red Scare tactics were used to push away immigrants from eastern Europe; and everyone south of the equator has always had a target on their back just because of where they came from (or, more likely, the color of their skin). Anti-immigration has largely – almost exclusively – been based on racism, and although America still has a long, long fight before racism can even begin to be described as dying, we are making strides in the 21st century. But every entrenched power works to stay entrenched, and racism will not die with a whimper. The latest flash point of this fight seems to be happening in New York City.

On August 20th a crowd of 200 or so, after heeding the call of washed-up right-wing radio host, gathered on a street in Staten Island where a senior-living facility is likely to be turned into an immigration center for new arrivals. Elected officials were also in attendance, but this crowd wasn’t there to welcome new Americans to our “land of opportunity” though, they were there to continue America’s deep-seated hatred of foreigners. This latest march, and proceeding arrests, are just another in a string of gatherings in the past weeks railing against immigration. Chanting “no tent city” and “close our border,” this primarily white crowd stood out in the boiling sun waving their Trump 2024 and Gadsden flags proudly as they complained about the current mayor – the ex-cop Eric Adams – and chanted right-wing slogans about their hate of anyone not born on U.S. soil. They argued that those promoting immigration “would destroy the America that we know,” and said the new arrivals were part of an “invasion,” referred to themselves as “troops.” The crowd claimed the immigrants may be “rapists” or “murders” (after also saying “immigrants” shouldn’t be used, “illegals” should), and declared a state of war against “Anti-American” policies. Sound familiar? History may not repeat, but it sure does rhythm. 

What has happened to the American sense of acceptance and pride in being a nation built by the labor of people from all over the world? Even Reagan called America a “shining city on the hill” and, while this biblical imagery was used entirely as anti-Soviet Cold War propaganda, in a lot of ways Reagan was right. I know, I know, but hear me out. Despite its many, many faults, America has historically served as a shelter from the storm for many. Refugees fleeing war – on a large scale just as recently as the Russian invasion of Ukraine – come to America to live relatively free from violence with easy access to cultures from their homeland (cultures that already have strong imprints here because we are overwhelmingly a nation of immigrants). When citizens of other countries have a hard time finding jobs to support their families, America has been a place where they can at least find a job. We almost always have jobs. Those jobs may not pay nearly enough, and the workplace environments can be downright egregious at times (and we are very often the reason their home country has economic hardships in the first place), but for someone trying to feed their kids any income is better than no income at all. We have at least provided a chance for a better life, and that’s really all people want. A chance. And for a long time, America has, if nothing else, provided that chance. 

But every time these right-wing assholes decide they’ve run out of ideas for their next election they go back to that one trump (relevant both capitalized and not) card that requires no critical thinking, creativity, personal charisma, or real, long-lasting benefits that always gains them at least some votes: racism. Because, in a nation with a racial history that not even Adolf Hitler could wrap his mind around, racism gets the white American electorate going with terrifying enthusiasm. It has, since the very first colonizers landed on our shores, so deeply embedded itself into our laws, customs, and worldview that, like a fail-safe trigger, all some ambitious tyrant in the making needs to gain some notoriety and campaign volunteers is to take the down-trodden masses at America’s shores and throw they under the bus. 

And that is exactly what we see happening in New York. While social movements are, of course, always much larger than a single person, much of the anti-immigrant action in New York seems to always include one man: Curtis Sliwa (the aforementioned washed-up radio host). You’ve probably never heard that name before (and if so, lucky you) so it may be surprising to learn that he’s the man that got second place for mayor in America’s largest city. In America, no one really cares about second place, but for egomaniacs like Sliwa, second place becomes one hell of a motivator to finally crest that final hill.

Sliwa may have lost the mayor’s race in 2021, but it’s clear that hasn’t discouraged him from a life of political ambition. Now he’s made the residents of the city who are unwilling to face the realities of their anti-immigration proposals the backdrop of whatever race he feels like running for next. Almost every news article about the past week’s protest mentions how Sliwa is leading them, and everyone makes sure to mention that he was arrested twice during then. Nearly every video from the marches covers where the action is, of course, which Sliwa is usually front and center of. He’s spent his social media time interviewing protestors and immigrants pretending to care about their lives and peppering them with questions. Based on his words in the past few weeks, this most recent anti-immigration push – from a nation of immigrants who have forgotten where they came from – has become the latest wedge issue Sliwa plans to exploit for his political ambitions. And those words are what make this latest fight scary. Not the words of Sliwa – no one needs to care about him until he runs for something he has a chance of actually winning (like governor; although this disgusting video of him standing in the New York streets yelling “mainland Africa” is worth seeing) – but the words of New York’s residents call back to a dark time in America’s history mixed with a bit of the political absurdity we are all very used to in the 21st century. 

Besides the aforementioned “war” comments – which are already a terrifying call in our increasingly militarized political atmosphere – the dehumanizing and violent language hurled by the crowds in New York is eerie to listen to. The immigrants are constantly referred to as “aliens,” a bluntly dehumanizing word used to other and degrade real human beings. Complaints are made that immigrants are taking away money that could be spent on social services (from the same people that cut those social services, too). Militaristic language is casually thrown around, such as the aforementioned “invasion” and that America is “under attack.” Once gatherers started being arrested at the action on the 20th, people accused the cops of forsaking their oath to protect the Constitution, complaining that “American citizens” were being arrested while immigrants weren’t. One gatherer shouted, “So you can trespass our country but you can’t trespass the street here.” Trespassing – that’s how immigration was being framed. Trespassers can be legally killed in many states thanks to “stand your ground” or “castle doctrine” laws in the U.S. “I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” indeed.

The organizers of the events knew that they would be called racists for their demonstrations. Some speeches attempted to preemptively address this. Despite this, the fact remains: being against immigration because your xenophobic views depict foreigners as violent, evil, less-than-humans that deserve to be arrested for daring to enter the land of immigration is racist, and it really is as simple as that.

Outside of the event on the 20th, a banner was hung depicting Adams wearing an “I hate NY” shirt while holding a severed, bloody head of the Statue of Liberty. The idea is that Adams, by daring to allow people to immigrate to our country, hates liberty, New York City, and America. But it isn’t people who promoted immigration that hate America: as “The New Colossus” clearly states, we are a country built by “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Being anti-immigration is anti-American. It is those who work to help people coming to our country that truly make America what it is. Or at the least, what America should be.