Vanderbilt Law Review


Anna Byrne

First Page



These words, so famously engraved upon a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty, have become an anachronism in modern American politics. In recent years our society has witnessed a maelstrom arise concerning immigration law and enforcement, with vocal factions spouting angry vitriol about the need to tighten borders and crack down on illegal immigration. Intense debate was sparked 2006 after the House of Representatives passed a restrictive bill that called for a wall to be built along 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border, criminalized the aiding or encouraging of illegal immigrants to remain in the country, and imposed new penalties on employers who hired illegal immigrants. The bill was controversial, but seemed generally in line with public wishes. The Senate responded by passing a more immigrant-friendly bill that would give most illegal immigrants currently in the country a chance to become citizens. Despite intense efforts, Congress has been unable to compromise and pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill. The issue remains a divisive one. Americans are divided deeply on the subject of immigration, and passions run deep on both sides of the issue.

Today, Emma Lazarus's poem describes our past, more than our present. Many Americans still think of their nation as a country of immigrants, a melting pot, a place of opportunity for those that were willing to work hard, regardless of socio-economic status at birth, but many reject this as a vision for the future. While fear of foreigners always existed, the United States had a liberal and inviting immigration policy in its early years. The country needed immigrants to help develop its vast territories. Welcome for immigrants peaked in the early 1860s, when the Homestead Act promised 160 acres to any immigrant willing to settle and cultivate the land for at least 5 years.

After the Civil War, however, the United States began to develop immigration policies that sought to protect American borders from certain types of immigrants. In 1875, Congress passed a law hat barred convicts and prostitutes from entering the country. Just a year before Lazarus wrote her poem, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the nation's first race-based immigration law. More race-based immigration law followed when Congress enacted the Quota Act of 1921, which limited the number of immigrants of each race to three percent of that ethnic population already residing in the country." In 1962, John F. Kennedy lamented that Americans welcome the tired and the poor "as long as they come from Northern Europe, are not too tired or too poor or slightly ill, never stole a loaf of bread, never joined any questionable organization, and can document their activities for the past two years." In the 1960s, Congress phased out the quota system and substituted immigration laws that favor family reunification and needed skills. That system remains largely intact today.