Jim Acosta and the MSM: Grasping at Straws in the Immigration Debate

On Wednesday, CNN’s Jim Acosta took White House aide Stephen Miller to task for President Trump’s proposed immigration policy reform, which seeks to institute a “merit-based system for green cards based on the ability to speak English, educational attainment and job skills.” 

Rather than cite any legal or economic problems with Trump’s proposed policy, Acosta invoked the “American tradition when it comes to immigration.  The Statue of Liberty says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.”

Trump’s proposed immigration reform is wrong when viewed through the prism of “American tradition,” Acosta suggests.  And his support for that position is not that Trump’s policy runs afoul of the Constitution or any existing laws, but rather because it seems ideologically at odds with a poem, written by a late-nineteenth century socialist named Emma Lazarus, which he believes is a vital litmus test in determining what is, and what isn’t, truly American when it comes to immigration policy. 

I don’t take issue with the poem itself.  Aesthetically, I’ve always thought it quite good.  I just think it’s absurd to quote it as “Exhibit A” in arguing that restrictions on immigration amount to nativist xenophobia.

Quotes are funny things, because who originally said them generally provides the bulk of a quote’s weight.  You’ll note that Acosta didn’t say, “As socialist poet Emma Lazarus once wrote…”  He said that “[t]he Statue of Liberty says…”

But let’s play his game for a moment.  Acosta clearly had a problem with the English requirement of Trump’s policy proposition.  Well, as Miller pointed out, the quote was not emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty when it was erected in America in 1886.  It was “added later.”  It was added in 1903, to be precise.

In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt was the American president.  Given this fact, and the fact that his face appears alongside Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln on Mount Rushmore, I’d say his words might carry some weight on the matter of what is “traditionally” American.  And what Roosevelt said about immigrants, and the necessity of immigrants’ learning of the English language, could not be clearer.

“In the first place,” Roosevelt wrote in 1919, “we should insist that the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates to us… There can be no divided allegiance here… We have room for but one language, and that is the English language.”

Sounds pretty close to what we conservatives are arguing today, doesn’t it?  So how is it that Teddy Roosevelt’s words are just archaic xenophobic blather, but the words of a 19th century socialist, whose few widely remembered words appear in an exhibition at the base of the Statue of Liberty, are the standard by which all things regarding American immigration policy should be measured?

I could argue that the quote I referenced is weightier in a logical sense, and I certainly believe it is.  But the reality is that this sort of thing may be good conversation fodder at a dinner table or social gathering, but what Teddy had to say about immigration in 1919, just before his death, is rather irrelevant when it comes to the legality of America’s immigration policy in 2017.  And the pretty musings of a socialist have little, if anything, to do with what is “traditionally” American.

Neither should be invoked in honest policy discussion around immigration.  What should be discussed in such debate is the economic and cultural impact of the existing and the proposed policies.  And, being that it’s among the few jobs that the federal government is actually supposed to do, how federal immigration policy can best protect American citizens.

Nonetheless, Acosta’s odd performance made headlines, though perhaps not in the way he would’ve liked.  Trump supporters happily watched as Miller somewhat indelicately dismantled Acosta’s logic.  What amuses me most, though, is that so many on the left think Acosta made a valid argument, and are claiming that Miller is somehow at fault for the wild exchange.  Callum Borchers writes in The Washington Post that “Miller’s refusal to answer in an intellectually honest way sent the question-and-answer session off the rails.”

But it was Acosta’s silly framing of the question that actually led the session “off the rails.”  In truth, the only intellectual honesty in the exchange came from Miller, who reminded Acosta that immigration levels in America have not always been a deluge of poverty-stricken, unskilled laborers with little mind to assimilate to American society, but that “immigration levels have ebbed and flowed” throughout our nation’s history as power shifted in Congress and executive administrations over the years.  He also reminded him that learning English is already a requirement of naturalization, despite Acosta’s claim that an English requirement for green cards is some wildly racist deviation from standing laws.

Acosta wasn’t at the White House for an intellectually honest discussion on the dangers or benefits of unrestricted immigration, which should be obvious.  His aim, as it is with so many other mainstream media “journalists,” was to signal his own progressive virtues and promote the left’s propaganda campaign to import voters who crave, and will forever wish to receive, taxpayer-subsidized benefits, thereby allowing for more expansive growth of the administrative State, and bringing our nation nearer to the collectivist utopia that they so foolishly endeavor to achieve.   

But with no intellectually solid foundation upon which to stand in making the argument for unrestricted immigration, it might be understandable that Jim Acosta and his ilk’s best argument today boils down to “a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty says...”

Hard to think of a better metaphorical application of the idiom, “grasping at straws.”

William Sullivan blogs at Political Palaver and can be followed on Twitter.

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