Yesterday there was a brief exchange in the White House briefing room that was an almost perfect Rorschach test for our polarized times. In one corner was White House aide Stephen Miller, part of the so-called nationalist wing of the Trump administration and a man who has forgotten more about immigration policy than most of us will ever learn. In the other corner was “objective” CNN journalist Jim Acosta.
Acosta began the exchange by quoting the “New Colossus.” Best known as the “Statue of Liberty poem,” Emma Lazarus’s classic work contains the words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and Acosta used those same words to ask whether Trump’s immigration proposals were “in keeping with American tradition.” Miller immediately countered with a brief history lesson. The poem wasn’t part of the statue. It was added many years later. The statue was originally intended to symbolize American liberty lighting the world, not as a beacon beckoning the world to our shores.
On the history, Miller was right. On policy, Miller had facts while Acosta had feelings. For those who don’t have time to watch the exchange, I went something like this:
Miller: (Counters with facts showing that the history is more complex)
Acosta: (Emotionally defends poem)
Miller: (Counters that the poem never set policy)
Acosta: (Bigotry accusation)
Miller: (Snobbery accusation)
As I watched the exchange, I immediately and viscerally sided with Miller. Why is a supposedly objective journalist acting like a partisan? Why was his question so ill-informed? He not only botched the history, he was actually asking whether American immigration policy was consistent with a century-old poem. And even then, wasn’t he utterly incoherent? After all — as Miller pointed out — American immigration has ebbed and flowed for generations, and there is no one, true number that’s consistent with the poet’s original intent. Besides, and this is important, poetry isn’t policy.
Yet leftist Twitter and the liberal Web exploded with glee. Look how mean Miller is! Did he just diss America’s greatest poem? How could anyone like that guy? To them, Acosta stripped off Miller’s wonkish veneer and exposed the angry intolerance that lurks beneath. In other words, while conservatives saw the clash as facts versus feelings, the Left viewed the exchange through the prism of kind versus cruel.
And therein lies the problem. In politics, kind versus cruel is a compelling narrative. And when it comes to the battle of facts versus feelings, feelings are very potent indeed. The challenge of persuasion is to marry facts with feelings, to change hearts and minds on what is kind and cruel.
Let’s take, for example, the longstanding debate over immigration from jihadist nations. The Left has made great headway arguing that the “kind” thing is for America to step up and take its “fair share” of refugees from war-torn lands — even though Obama’s policies helped create the chaos from which refugees are fleeing, and his “kindness” would only aid the smallest fraction of those displaced from their homes. But is the Left’s approach actually more cruel than alternatives that could provide safe havens for millions abroad rather than making a place for thousands here at home? And isn’t it “kind” to protect our own citizens from terrorist violence?
Why is it inherently more compassionate to allow a low-skilled, non-English-speaking sibling of a legal immigrant to come to this country at the exact same time that our blue-collar population is struggling to attain economic stability?
There are times when politicians are burdened with arguing that their policies are hard but necessary. Calling a nation to war, for example, is the grimmest of tasks. In the immigration debate, however, the Right cannot and must not cede the “kind versus cruel” narrative to the Left. Why is it inherently more compassionate to allow a low-skilled, non-English-speaking sibling of a legal immigrant to come to this country at the exact same time that our blue-collar population is struggling to attain economic stability? Is more competition for jobs what our own working-class citizens need right now?
Remember, the vast majority of these low-skilled immigrants aren’t refugees. They’re not so much “yearning to be free” as much as they’re looking for a job and better life. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, but does that motivation trump the exact same motivation of Americans and other legal immigrants already here? Do we tell those Americans who are even now dying deaths of despair in part because of lost economic opportunity that immigration policy should make their lives more difficult because, well, “there’s this poem on the Statue of Liberty”?
In the battle over immigration, the conservative, restrictionist argument isn’t facts versus feelings. It’s facts and feelings. Or, to put it another way, it’s poetry and policy. There is a compassionate story to tell — of compassion for struggling Americans trying to make their way in a changing economy. Immigration restrictions are by no means a cure-all, but when the immigrant population is reaching a historic high, there is room for restriction. There’s reason to try a different approach. It’s the kind thing to do.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.