Ken Cuccinelli, President Trump’s new man at the Citizenship and Immigration Services Agency, has now famously opined that a proper understanding of Emma Lazarus’s poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty—the one that begins, “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” should be revised to include the caveat, “so long as they’re not likely to receive any public services targeted to the poor.”
Historically, of course, most immigrants to the United States have been poor: Certainly, the Irish fleeing the potato famine (who received plenty of public services from big-city machines like Tammany Hall); the Central European refugees forced to flee after the failed revolutions of 1848; the Chinese who built our transcontinental railroad; the Italians, Jews and Slavs who came here in the late 19th and early 20th century; the Mexicans who’ve come in recent decades; and the Central Americans arriving today. Every one of those groups has been reviled by the nativists of their era, who actually enacted bans against the Chinese, Italians, Jews and Slavs at various times over the past 140 years, as Trump and his ilk are doing today against the Central Americans.
Among the poorest ever to come to our shores was the Baline family, who arrived dead broke and stayed that way for a number of years. Their little boy, Izzy, who changed his name to Irving Berlin in his late teens, not only wrote such iconic anthems as “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade,” and “God Bless America,” but also, for his 1949 musical “Miss Liberty,” set Emma Lazarus’s poem to his music.
Berlin’s three daughters are still alive, and his company still holds the rights to most of his songs. I can’t imagine his daughters or grandchildren or great-grandchildren view Trump’s new immigration policy—turning back the poor—with anything other than horror. So herewith, a suggestion for them:
Why don’t they request (I don’t think they can legally demand) that every performance of “God Bless America” include, as a new verse between the initial and repeated singing of the chorus, the Lazarus-Berlin song as an intervening verse? In other words, if Trump and the Republicans, or ball clubs during the seventh-inning stretch, want a performance of “God Bless America,” they should have to explicitly include as part of that performance Berlin’s paean to our exceptionalism: that we are distinctively the land that welcomes immigrants, even poor, huddled masses. That, after all, was a decisive reason why Berlin believed God blessed America.
Berlin daughters, Berlin company: What say?