The journey for most immigrants across the Atlantic Ocean was nothing less than hellish. Loaded on decrepit steamers for weeks, they were cramped, crowded, and miserable. But when these ships chugged into New York Harbor, everything changed in a moment.
As the coast approached, miseries were forgotten, railings were crowded and an enormous structure of copper and steel emerged. This manifestation of America was the Statue of Liberty. This was the purpose of their sacrifice. This was freedom.
And many of the immigrants post-1903 were no doubt inspired by the poetry of Emma Lazarus. A stanza at the base of that New Colossus reads: Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Those lines are as beautiful as they are inspiring. They're also poetry subject to interpretation, and while CNN's Jim Acosta might disagree judging from his soliloquy in the White House briefing room, they're not law. A better and no less beautiful guide can be found in the prose of the Founding.
First, as Thomas Jefferson observed in the Declaration of Independence, "all men are created equal" and therefore own "certain unalienable rights." Second, as James Madison wrote in the Constitution, the American union exists "to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."
Borrowing from Proverbs, Lincoln would later describe the principles of the Declaration of Independence as "apples of gold" enshrined in the Constitution's surrounding "frame of silver." It's a poetic encapsulation of hard and fast social contract theory, namely the idea that the fundamental job of government is the protection of its own consenting citizens.
Always a nation of immigrants, our republic has invited the tired and poor to help amplify American exceptionalism. No one can argue that she is not better and richer for it today. But the generosity of the republic ends where a threat begins. In short, immigration policy, at least according to our first founding principles, cannot harm citizens.
Of course, none of this necessarily means that the Founders would endorse the RAISE Act. Those dead and long-molding politicos are too often made ventriloquist dummies for specific policies. Luckily a séance of Jefferson or Madison isn't necessary. The principles of those documents speak for themselves.
If huddled masses can accept the American paradigm of individual rights and if they don't infringe on the liberty or well-being of the people already here, according to founding documents, there's no reason not to welcome them with open arms.
But unlike Acosta's impromptu poetry reading, this doesn't prescribe X or Y policy. It necessitates a guided debate. Self-governing people must, well, self-govern. It's their job to legislate how best to secure their freedom and the future freedom of their children. They must decide what prudent policy is on the basis of permanent constitutional policy and changing circumstances.
To do otherwise, to make law from hackneyed interpretations of a few lines of Lazarus, does a disservice to those immigrants who chugged into New York Harbor. They didn't come to this country because someone cobbled together a statue and someone else scribbled some lines at its base a little later. Tired, poor, or otherwise, they sailed for America for a life where, if they were accepted as citizens, their freedom would be protected.
Philip Wegmann is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.