- The poem inscribed on a plaque in the Statue of Liberty continues to come up in discussions on the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
- The poem, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, was written in tribute to refugees and immigrants.
- Lazarus, a New Yorker of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish descent, was asked to write the poem to raise money for the statue’s pedestal. She drew inspiration from the work she did as an aide for refugees on Ward’s Island.
- Though the Statue of Liberty was originally meant to be a symbol that celebrated the abolition of slavery, but its close proximity to Ellis Island and Lazarus’ poem saw it morph into a symbol of America’s immigrant tradition.
- The poem was written in 1883. This was around the same time the US government passed blatantly xenophobic laws, including the Chinese Exclusion Act.
The Statue of Liberty is among the most recognisable landmarks in the US and has long been viewed as a symbol of the country’s immigrant tradition.
But the statue has become a divisive topic in the Trump era, frequently coming up in discussions on the administration’s controversial immigration policies.
A poem inscribed on a plaque attached to the statue – “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus – has been at the center of all of this, given its pro-immigrant and pro-refugee sentiments.
White House senior adviser Stephen Miller in August 2017 downplayed the poem’s significance given it was added years after the statue was initially unveiled.
As Miller faced questions from reporters over a skill-based immigration proposal from the administration, CNN’s Jim Acosta said, “The Statue of Liberty says, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.’ It doesn’t say anything about speaking English or being a computer programmer. Aren’t you trying to change what it means to be an immigrant coming into this country if you’re telling them that you have to speak English?”
Miller replied, “I don’t want to get off into a whole thing about history here, but the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of American liberty lighting the world. The poem that you’re referring to was added later (and) is not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.”
The poem was also mentioned and more or less rewritten by US Citizenship and Immigration Services Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli on Tuesday.
A day after the administration announced a new rule that could deny green cards to immigrants who rely on government benefits or are likely to, Cuccinelli sought to defend the move via a reworking of one of the most famous lines in the poem.
“They certainly are – give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” Cuccinelli said. “That plaque was put on the Statue of Liberty at almost the same time as the first public charge law was passed – very interesting timing.”
As the National Immigration Law Center defines it, a “public charge” is “a term used in immigration law to refer to a person who is primarily dependent on the government for support.”
The Immigration Act of 1882 gave the US government authority to prohibit entry to people who were likely to become a “public charge.” This law was passed around the same time as the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese workers from coming to the US and blocked Chinese nationals in the US from becoming citizens. The law remained in place for more than 60 years.
Cuccinelli suggested that the plaque with Lazarus’ poem was added to the Statue of Liberty “almost at the same time,” but the statue – a gift from France – was not unveiled until 1886. The plaque would not be added until 1903 – well after Lazarus died in 1887.
Lazarus was a New Yorker of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish descent. When she wasn’t writing, Lazarus worked as an aide to Russian Jewish refugees on Ward’s Island.
In 1883, Lazarus was asked to write a poem to help raise funds for the statue’s pedestal. “Lazarus, inspired by her own Sephardic Jewish heritage, her experiences working with refugees on Ward’s Island, and the plight of the immigrant, wrote ‘The New Colossus’ on November 2, 1883,” according to the National Park Service.
Though it was written at a time when the US was implementing blatantly xenophobic laws, the poem portrayed the Statue of Liberty as the “Mother of Exiles,” and a welcoming symbol to immigrants arriving in the US.
The end of the poem states: “‘Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!'”
The Statue of Liberty was originally meant to be a symbol that celebrated of the abolition of slavery, but gradually that meaning was lost – including by the time the statue was unveiled – and it eventually became associated with immigration. Among other reasons, this was linked to the statue’s close proximity to Ellis Island, through which millions of immigrants passed, and association with Lazarus’ poem.