US midterm elections: Statue of Liberty looks on askance at toxic US immigration debate – Henry McLeish

The Statue of Liberty, dedicated in 1886, was originally conceived as a gift of friendship between the people of France and America and a sign of their mutual desire for liberty.

The Statue of Liberty has been associated with the benefits of immigration for more than a century (Picture: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)
The Statue of Liberty has been associated with the benefits of immigration for more than a century (Picture: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

For others, it marked the end of slavery and the country’s centennial. Regardless of its origins, the iconic and internationally acclaimed Lady Liberty has become a universal symbol of freedom.

According to the US National Endowment of the Humanities, it is “the mother of exiles, greeting millions of immigrants and embodying hope and opportunity for those seeking a better life in America. It stirs the desire for freedom in people all over the world. It represents the US itself.”

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A plaque at the base of the statue contains a sonnet written by Emma Lazarus, which reads: “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 today, is the Statue of Liberty still a symbol of enduring freedom, recognising America is a proud nation of immigrants, or a national myth that no longer reflects the realities of the modern state?

Beyond the shores of Liberty Island in Upper New York Bay and the contested views of Lady Liberty’s universal significance, the final weeks of the US midterm election campaign will be less exalted.

Both country and Congress are deeply divided. For extreme Republicans, immigration has become a toxic mix of illegality, race, ethnicity, crime, drugs, and the populist Maga rhetoric of “takeback control” and “protect our borders”.

Democrats are more concerned about giving undocumented migrants a path to citizenship. But, as news channel CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said recently, President Joe Biden “needs to learn from recent elections in Italy and Sweden and do more to convince Americans that that he is in control of immigration and the border in particular” and offer “a better, faster, more predictable legal immigration system but also a tougher way to restrict illegal immigration” to address “voters well-founded fears of dysfunction”.

The history of immigration to the US stretches back to the 1500s and the first Europeans from Spain and France, the 1600s with Pilgrims arriving in search of religious freedom and fleeing persecution in Europe.

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Founded by the English in 1607, Jamestown was the first settlement in the colony of Virginia. The 17th and 18th centuries were the darkest period, witnessing the arrival in America of African slaves. In the 19th century, vast numbers of Europeans settled, including the Scots and Irish.

Facts are heavily discounted in today’s immigration debate. Donald Trump’s “build the wall” era, the inhumane treatment of children and families, and descriptions of Mexicans as “rapists” were historic low points in a debate designed to stir the Republican base, rather than seek solutions to long-term problems. Trump inflicted enormous damage on serious discussions about immigration.

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According to the influential Pew Research Centre and the Migration Policy Institute, the US had more immigrants than any other country in the world in 2015: “Nearly 45 million people living in the US were born in another country, accounting for about one-fifth of the world’s migrants.” Of these, estimates of unauthorised, illegal, or undocumented immigrants range from almost a quarter, ten to 12 million, or 3.5 per cent of the US population.

The southern US border and Mexico have remained the focus of Republican rage, and an easy target for alarmism and a distorted narrative. The facts, however, reveal a much more complex story of immigration into modern America.

Mexico, China, India, the Philippines, and El Salvador are now the top birthplaces for immigrants to the US.

Immigrants from Mexico were the highest for decades after 1970, but the make-up of new arrivals has changed. New immigrants are now more likely to come from Asia, with China and India leading the way. In 2013, India and China displaced Mexico as the top origin countries for new arrivals

More than a million immigrants arrive in the US each year. Asians are projected to become the largest immigrant group in the US by 2055, surpassing Hispanics in the foreign-born population.

Polling on immigrants suggests two thirds of Americans say they strengthen the country, with a quarter saying immigrants are a burden on the country.

Nearly 90 per cent of Democrats think immigrants strengthen the country, while among Republicans more than 40 per cent agree. A substantial number of Republicans also agree on the overall worth of immigrants.

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President Biden’s decision to remove a public health order called Title 42 – authorising federal officials to turn away migrants at the border, even those seeking asylum, on the grounds of the possible spread of a communicable disease – angered Republicans.

Their leadership resolved to wage war on those crossing the southern border, targeting not just illegal but also legal immigration.

Most unauthorised immigrants who entered the US in 2016, 62 per cent, overstayed temporary visas; only 38 per cent had crossed the border illegally. The Pew Research Centre found almost 90 per cent of those who overstayed their visas were from neither Mexico nor Central America.

Party-political differences reflect public opinion. About 90 per cent of Republicans describe “securing” the US-Mexico border “an important goal”, while only 59 per cent of Democrats say border security should be “at least somewhat important”.

America retains strong public support across the divide for immigrants, especially refugees. But a vast gulf remains between the political parties in Congress, with an even sharper divide between potential presidential hopefuls Trump and Biden in 2024.

Lady Liberty’s torch of freedom stands as a permanent reminder of a country built on immigration. But today that symbolism rings less true because of identity politics, right-wing populism, racism, and derision for those who seek “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. The founding fathers could not have put it better.

Henry McLeish is a former First Minister of Scotland

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