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Today at a White House press briefing, Stephen Miller responded to a question about proposed restrictions to legal immigration from CNN’s Jim Acosta by saying “I don’t want to get off into a whole thing about history, but…” He then argued that the Statue of Liberty is about America enlightening the world, and that Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” is irrelevant because it was added later, implying that being welcoming to immigrants isn’t a core American value.

This exchange reveals one of the ways that history gets used in the public sphere: to justify present policies as continuities with the past.

Miller’s claims have caused some outrage, and rightly so. Many have pointed out that “under God” wasn’t in the Pledge of Allegiance until the 1950s either, but were you to suggest it wasn’t relevant, lots of people would be angry. (Lots of people would be fine taking it out as well.)

The problem here is that Miller’s larger point isn’t wrong, and we have to grapple with that. The Statue was put up, and the poem inscribed, at a time when there was a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment and, for the first time, significant federal anti-immigrant legislation.

Chinese immigration had been barred a few years earlier, restrictions that would gradually spread to cover the rest of Asia. In the 1920s, the Johnson-Reed Act further regulated immigration by barring immigrants from certain (largely non-white) parts of the world and placing quotas on immigration to restrict immigrants from other parts of the world (largely Southern and Eastern Europe).

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Therein lies the problem, the reason why Miller and his opponents are both right and wrong. The U.S. is both a nation of immigrants and a nation that has often hated, exploited, scapegoated, and restricted immigrants. Our values have evolved, certainly, but the distance between those stated values and our laws and actions has often been quite large.

And so, we need to have conversations about what we want our values to be, rather than looking to history to tell us the Truth of American Values.

History has an important role to play, however. It reminds us that many of the arguments made today about “valuable” and “dangerous” immigrants have been made before, in different historical moments, about different groups. It’s not accurate or productive to simply be shocked at Miller’s comments and claim that we’ve always been a nation of immigrants.

It is more accurate and possibly more productive to point out that many of the people making claims about dangerous immigrants who need to be restricted, and immigrants who won’t learn English, are themselves the descendants of immigrants who not that long ago were considered dangerous and unassimilable, or unskilled and likely to drive down “American wages.” Moreover, they are descendants of immigrants from Europe who, despite the claims of the third and fourth generations, often didn’t speak English and weren’t in a hurry to learn it. 

Miller wanted to use history to put an end to a conversation. Instead, let’s use it to begin conversations.

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