On Wednesday afternoon Jim Acosta, a reporter for CNN and Stephen Miller, a special advisor to the president, had a spat about the history of the Statue of Liberty in the White House press briefing room. President Trump had just proposed cutting in half the number of legal immigrants allowed into the United States. Mr. Acosta challenged the proposal saying: “The Statue of Liberty says, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’” citing the famous poem “The New Colossus,” written by Emma Lazarus and inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Mr. Miller responded by implicitly disputing the importance of the poem’s message, saying, “The poem that you’re referring to, that was added later, is not actually a part of the original Statue of Liberty.”
Technically, Mr. Miller is correct: The poem was added later. The Statue of Liberty actually began as an abolitionist symbol. After the South’s defeat, a small circle of French intellectuals who admired the U.S. Constitution founded the French Emancipation Committee to raise funds for the newly freed African-Americans. They also believed the United States needed a monument to celebrate emancipation, the keeping of the country’s own promise, and they became determined to have France deliver the gift.
The Statue of Liberty actually began as an abolitionist symbol.
By the time Lady Liberty was installed in New York Harbor the project's anti-slavery origins had faded in significance; American fundraisers called the statue a commemoration of the Franco-American alliance that defeated Britain.
But the connection to immigrants was made from the beginning. The poem “The New Colossus” actually predates the raising of the statue and was written specifically to sell at an auction to raise funds for the construction of the pedestal in New York Harbor. Emma Lazarus was a prominent writer and daughter of a well-connected Jewish family in New York. As violent pogroms in the Russian empire forced thousands of Jewish refugees to flee to the United States, Ms. Lazarus volunteered with the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society, which helped to settle Jewish refugees. Her poem “The New Colossus” was written with these Russian Jewish refugees in mind. She imagined the new statue welcoming the new immigrants to America.
From the very beginning, the statue and immigration have been intertwined in the imagination of the country.
President Grover Cleveland officially dedicated the statue in 1886. His speech mentioned neither slavery nor immigration. Edouard de Laboulaye, the man who first proposed the statue, had been dead for years. Emma Lazarus would die of cancer in 1887, her poem “The New Colossus” still unknown. Nevertheless, the statue became a symbol of welcome for the millions of immigrants who entered the United States for the first time through New York harbor, just as Emma Lazarus had imagined. At the time there were no significant immigration restrictions for Europeans (the Chinese Exclusion Act had been signed by President Cleveland four years before the dedication of the statue). Simply passing a medical exam on Ellis Island got one into the country; a single witness attesting one had lived in the United States for five years was required for a judge to grant citizenship.
It was in 1903 that Emma Lazarus’s rediscovered poem was placed on the pedestal in recognition of the significance of the statue to the U.S. immigrant experience.
Stephen Miller and Jim Acosta’s verbal sparring about the history of the poem is just the latest iteration of a struggle and a contradiction as old as the United States. This nation of immigrants has always struggled with nativism and xenophobia. Grover Cleveland, the same president who banned an entire category of people based on country of origin, also dedicated the most recognizable symbol of America as a beacon of freedom. Stephen Miller, a descendant of Jewish refugees from the Russian Empire who fled the time of the pogroms, the exact kind of people who inspired Emma Lazarus, implies that the poem does not belong on the statue. Mr. Miller was intimately involved in the drafting the infamous and now partially in-force travel ban, which has attempted, with some success, to also ban an entire category of people based on their country of origin.
The United States’ status as a nation of immigrants has never been perfect.
The United States’ status as a nation of immigrants has never been perfect, and every generation of immigrants has experienced both hostility to their presence and the satisfaction of their children’s opportunities improving. The tragedy is that the lives of these descendants can improve so much in the United States that they can forget where they came from. When Americans attack immigrants they are all too often symbolically turning on their own ancestors, who surely would have identified more with the lives of immigrants today than their powerful and privileged descendants.
Like it or not, the statue and the poem have both become symbols of the immigration story. Both offer a vision of an America where the gate remains open, a vision that is all the more powerful at times when the gate is being closed. For today’s immigrant pioneers, who like my parents largely come from Latin America, the symbol of their welcome is not the Statue of Liberty but the constantly expanding wall across the desert. Nevertheless, the draw of the United States and its opportunities has never diminished, as the unidentified bodies of migrants in the desert can sadly attest to.
The poem “The New Colossus" is written on the U.S.-Mexico border wall on the Tijuana side, spray painted there by Mexican artists who remember better than the wall-builders what the country was supposed to be about. But the tradition of restricting immigration, of overblown concerns about assimilation and economics is also as old as America. It is up to every generation to decide what the statue will mean and what America will become.