"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."
The words inscribed in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty have an emotional power that still brings a lump to the throat. The Emma Lazarus poem may be more than 130 years old, but the sentiment those lines convey still appeals to the best in all of us, a recognition of our common humanity and a desire to help those less fortunate than ourselves.
When I settled down with my daughter to watch the Grammy Awards on TV recently (more for the bonding opportunity than the music!) I wasn't expecting to hear the famous lines repeated that particular evening. But somehow they became the theme for the night, a sort of anti-Trump rallying cry in favor of unrestricted immigration.
The problem is, however much we may admire the sentiment, the world has changed beyond recognition in the century since the “give me your tired” lines were written. The open invitation they offer, implying unrestricted immigration with no limits, is no longer a sustainable proposition.
Migration today is a far bigger and more complex issue than it was a century ago and it's one that impacts not just America but Ireland, Europe, Australia and other places around the world.
In an ideal world, of course, there would be no borders and people would be free to move and start new lives wherever they want. But apart from the clueless and the hopeless romantics -- and there seems to be quite a few of both in the music business -- few people think that is possible in the real world today.
As the Grammy show got going, the singer Camila Cabello spoke about her Cuban-Mexican roots, how her family had come to the U.S. with nothing and why she strongly supports the Dreamers.
"This country was built by dreamers, for dreamers, chasing the American dream," she said, as the image of the Statue of Liberty appeared on the big screen behind her.
We heard the words again -- "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." -- and the camera soared through the night sky before coming down on U2 performing "Get Out of Your Own Way" on a barge in the sea in front of the Statue of Liberty. The hubris was as breathtaking as the scenery.
The words of the song are as vague as a lot of U2's lyrics, but the message became one of direct support for migrants as the screen behind them on the barge flashed up faces from different races. As it ended Bono produced a bullhorn to hammer it home, "Blessed are the shithole countries, for they gave us the American dream," he shouted.
Now Cabello is close to the Dreamer experience and her sincerity on the night was palpable. But U2?
This was opportunistic virtue signaling on a grandiose scale by aging, mega-wealthy, Irish rock stars who should know better. They are old enough to know the immigration issue is far too complex to be boiled down to a catchphrase.
Exactly what were they trying to say? The implication of the "shithole" reference was that they believe the US should have an open door to all migrants.
The words of "Get Out of Your Own Way" don't help much either, with vague references to Lincoln's ghost and fighting back: "Fight back, don’t take it lyin' down, you got to bite back, the face of liberty's starting to crack," etc.
With the Edge's powerful guitar, Bono's melodramatic prancing and the Statue of Liberty in the background, such lyrics can take on a deeper meaning than may be there. It's one of the problems of emotive rock anthems -- and it's a particular problem with U2 -- which call out for solutions to the world's problems but are often so vague, simplistic or inane they are useless when looking for detailed answers.
A couple of nights after the Grammys President Trump's immigration proposals in his State of the Union address were surprisingly detailed -- a much expanded DACA program, a merit-based system for future immigration, ending the visa lottery and chain migration, limiting family reunion to spouses and children, and funding for the wall on the Mexican border.
Whether you agree with any or all of his proposals, at least they can be debated and assessed. That is in stark contrast to the empty sloganeering at the Grammys that gives some people a warm, fuzzy feeling of righteousness but means little in practice. One expects that kind of woolly emoting from rappers and rockers, but it's something the Democrats should be avoiding if they want to regain power any time soon.
One of the interesting things about Trump's approach to immigration -- much tighter control to stop illegal immigration coupled with a welcome for legal immigrants -- is how closely it mirrors what is happening in Europe right now. In Germany the new coalition government will be running a very restricted immigration regime in an attempt to limit the damage caused by Merkel's open door policy two years ago. The election this year in Italy (a gateway to Europe for migrants crossing the Med) will reveal immigration as the main issue for voters and lead to a much tougher regime there in the future.
In Eastern Europe, particularly in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, there is open rejection of the EU's liberal approach to immigration, with an absolute refusal to absorb any migrants who arrive illegally. Some of these countries have built razor wire fences on their borders, a more extreme version of what Trump is considering for his notorious wall.
In the U.K., of course, the desire to control immigration was the key factor that led to Brexit and continues to be a major stumbling block in reaching a future free trade deal with the EU. And in other countries across Europe also, the public mood has hardened and the growing demand is for more control and merit-based immigration, similar to the systems in Australia and Canada.
One of the big differences between migration now and a century ago is that so much of it today is driven by the internet and social media. The world has shrunk and people in poor countries in South America or Africa can see on TV or on their phones what they are missing in the U.S. or Europe.
One can't blame them for wanting to move, particularly if they live in what Trump bluntly dubbed shithole counties. But that does not mean that America and Europe can have an open door policy.
Glossing over this harsh reality is not helpful. "To all the beautiful countries filled with culture, diversity and thousands of years of history, you are not shitholes," the rapper Logic told the Grammy audience.
Well, yes, nobody likes Trump's language, but we're talking about the situation today and you can't eat culture. Is Logic aware of the gross corruption and violence which keeps places like Haiti and El Salvador in misery and poverty, as well as some countries in Africa, despite the huge inputs of foreign aid? What word would he prefer to use to describe them?
Another disturbing factor in the immigration issue is that the majority of those on the move are economic migrants with enough resources to travel. Getting a place on a boat to cross the Med these days costs around $1,000, far beyond the reach of those who have nothing and are stuck in refugee camps.
Last week, for example, the majority of those who lost their lives in two sinkings in the Med were young men from Pakistan and Nigeria, neither of which are involved in wars. It's the same all the time, with over 90 percent of those crossing illegally into Europe being young men who originate in countries far from the conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and so on. Instead most of them are economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
Of course it's far easier to talk in emotive, heroic slogans, like Bono's "blessed are the shithole countries, for they gave us the American dream,” rather than grapple with the awkward realities of the immigration issue. And if you're a rock star it gives you street cred and makes you sort of a rebel, even if you're worth hundreds of millions and avoid tax when you can get away with it.
For the Irish, this has always been an uncomfortable subject, since it seems to be hypocritical to oppose unrestricted immigration now when so many Irish have gone to America, during and since the Famine. And back then Ireland was a shithole and our people were as destitute as can be.
So one can argue that, given our history, Irish Americans should support unrestricted immigration today, especially of the “huddled masses" coming from shithole countries with little or no resources or skills.
But this is a phony argument because one cannot compare the situation today with the situation centuries ago. For one thing, the U.S. is no longer in its nation-building expansionist phase with an ability to absorb vast numbers of immigrants. More importantly, the world has changed and there are new ways of tackling the factors that make people want to migrate.
The idea that all those in Africa or Asia who would prefer to live in Europe have to be accepted is as absurd as the notion that anyone from South America who wants to move to the U.S. must be allowed to do so.
The answer lies in greater equality between the various regions of the world and particularly a new prosperity for the poorest countries. Achieving that means reformed governance, ending corruption, and new investment -- a sort of Marshall Plan for the poorest countries like the U.S. provided for Europe after the war.
Except that this time, the EU, China and even Russia should be contributing instead of only the U.S.