The Statue of Liberty is a sign of welcome—but our immigration fights will not end.

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.

Advertisement

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. 

My grandmother and father at the Statue of Liberty in the early 1990s. My dad did not come to the United States by way of the New York Harbor. Nevertheless, to me, this picture still represents that he made it and that through his immigration story my own (still unborn) life as an American began.
My grandmother and father at the Statue of Liberty in the early 1990s. My dad did not come to the United States by way of the New York Harbor. Nevertheless, to me, this picture still represents that he made it and that through his immigration story my own (still unborn) life as an American began.

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. 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Richard Bell
2 months 2 weeks ago

Alas, it is not immigrants generally but millions -- millions! -- of illegal immigrants who have caused our fights over immigration to persist. (The recent attempt to temporarily bar immigrants from some countries of origin is a spasm caused by violent terrorists who disproportionately have origins in those countries. The attempt is very unlikely to cause any persistent fights over immigration.)

Deacon Chris Schneider
2 months 2 weeks ago

I recall from history, many facts that don't line up with your perceived history. The statue was created as the 'just' achievement of the 'Revolutionary War' with the dedication to be on the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence... It was not due to the 'war between the states', of which the French had been a strong supporter of the South during that war.
The re-writing of history is wrong... and the promotion of such is leading people in a lie.
Just sayin'

Antonio De Loera-Brust
2 months 2 weeks ago

Hello, this is the writer: I recommend two books "Enlightening the World: The Creation of the Statue of Liberty" by Yasmin Sabina Khan and the broader New York immigrant history book "City of Dreams" by Tyler Anbinder. Both cover in detail the fact that Édouard René de Laboulaye was a fierce abolitionist, a supporter of the Union (and an opponent of the French government under Napoleon III's policy at the time which as you correctly reference was to support the Confederacy), and the founder of the French Emancipation Committee. Though in the US the statue was seen more as a celebration of the French-American alliance of the Revolutionary War, it's original intent by de Laboulaye was in fact to celebrate emancipation! 

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 month 2 weeks ago

Antonio
What in your cited literature states that the "motive" /"intent"of the French originators was to "celebrate emancipation" .?
It is one thing for a person to be an ardent abolishonist and quite another to attribute the origin of that person's ideas to that fact. He might well have been "anti smoker", or "anti war" but those traits wouldn't mean he intended his idea for a statue to celebrate or memorialize either of those personal ideals.

rose-ellen caminer
2 months 2 weeks ago

The revisionist history, if not disinformation, is the lumping together of a citizen artist with the regime under which he lived. Its a generalization, a bias that you would know better then to hold regarding an American citizen artist. Right on Antonio, in everything you wrote in your article.

J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

A few comments.

First, the Statue of Liberty is not beacon for immigration but a beacon for liberty. It was meant to show the world what liberty can do. Now many have come here because of the liberty that this country offered and the statue has represented. But it was primarily meant to export liberty as a concept.

The Emma Lazarus poem is on a plaque inside the statue pedestal and placed there in 1903 almost 20 years after the statue was installed.. The original of the poem is at the The American Jewish Historical Society.

Second At the time the Lazarus poem was placed inside the Statue of Liberty (1903), most of the world was forbidden to immigrate to the United States. So while very inspirational, it never did represent immigration policy for the United States let alone open immigration.

Third, Emma Lazarus was Jewish but is the origin of one of the great acts of Catholic charity in United States history. She was a good friend of Rose Hawthorne Lathrop (daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne) who was very upset at Emma's death from cancer. In those days cancer was thought to be contagious and sort of like leprosy. Patients with it were shunned.

Rose lost her son and later became estranged from her husband who was an alcoholic and then died. She and her husband had converted to Catholicism and after her husband's death Rose started working with cancer patients. She eventually founded an order of nuns that had as their mission, the care of destitute cancer patients and are now called the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne. Rose or Mother Alphonsus as she later became has been proposed for canonization.

So Emma Lazarus has inspired more than freedom.

Fourth The current immigration laws which were established in 1965 has led along with the War on Poverty to the deterioration of the African American community within the United States. The large influx of low skilled immigrants that then happened led to lower wages for blue collar workers and made getting work for low skilled males extremely difficult. Wages for unsupervised blue collar workers peaked in 1973 due to the large influx of low skilled immigrants. The average blue collar worker today makes less than they did in 1973, over 40 years ago, due to the tremendous influx of low skilled immigrants.

So while the proponents of an expanded immigration policy sing the praises of their approach to immigration for the United States it has some very damaging affects on the poor in the United States. Something they fail to admit.

Vincent Gaglione
2 months 2 weeks ago

To Mr. De Loera-Brust and to Deacon Schneider, let us see the footnotes to support your positions, please. The Deacon's comments provided a harsh assessment of what may be differences in historical interpretation.

As for the current symbolic meaning of the Statue of Liberty, immigration and a welcome to the poor and huddled masses of the world is probably the ONLY meaning that most USA citizens have of it. It's original meaning, whichever or both if correct, is lost.

It's sort of similar to the symbolism of a Cardinal's red attire, instituted to remind those so honored of their willingness to sacrifice their lives for the Faith. Now, among most people, Catholics included, it's symbolic of high office and importance and deference. Hopefully that is not its symbolic meaning for any cardinals!

At a dinner I once attended, I recall Cardinal O'Connor of New York laughingly remarking that when he attended such charitable events, wearing his Cardinal's attire usually resulted in a bigger contribution rate! While I may not always have agreed with some of his policies, I admired Cardinal O'Connor for his working class attitudes, his openness to ordinary people of all persuasions, and his humility.

Antonio De Loera-Brust
2 months 2 weeks ago

Hey Mr. Gaglione! This is the writer. If your interested in this history, as I responded to Mr. Schneider, I recommend two books "Enlightening the World: The Creation of the Statue of Liberty" by Yasmin Sabina Khan and the broader New York immigrant history book "City of Dreams" by Tyler Anbinder. Both cover in detail the fact that Édouard René de Laboulaye was a fierce abolitionist, a supporter of the Union (and an opponent of the French government under Napoleon III's policy at the time which as you correctly reference was to support the Confederacy), and the founder of the French Emancipation Committee. Though in the US the statue was seen more as a celebration of the French-American alliance of the Revolutionary War, it's original intent by de Laboulaye was in fact to celebrate emancipation! 

Henry George
2 months 1 week ago

Antonio,

Nicely written article.

Whether your claims about the reason why the statue was built,
then taken apart and rebuilt in America versus those who say
otherwise should be resolvable. Please find out for us.

Naturally anyone would like to emigrate from a country that is very
difficult to live in and migrate to a country that offers more opportunities.

However, how is the "old country" ever to improve if the more talented
people leave ?

Some argue that we must accept all immigrants as it is our Christian
Duty, but cannot one wonder if it is not the duty of the "would be" immigrants to help their own country if that is at all possible ?

Thus, cannot one argue that we, in America, have an absolute duty to help African Americans live better lives than we do to any "economic immigrants" who can get by in the old country but would like a more prosperous life in America ?

After all the African Americans were slaves long before the American
Revolution and the Civil War...

Is America unique in that an un-documented immigrant can move here,
find a well paying job, buy a house and, as long as he is not detected by Immigration Authorities, live out his life ?

Can I move to Mexico and buy land ?
Can I retire to Chile without going through their immigration procedures ?

E.Patrick Mosman
2 months 1 week ago

"Like it or not, the statue and the poem have both become symbols of the immigration story."
Symbols Yes, Immigration law No.
Ask any American of immigrant parents the story of their parents or grandparents entry in the 1800s an early 1900s and it will be similar to mine.
My grandparents told of their entry into the US from Ireland through the immigration office in Galveston TX and my father-in-law's name is on the wall at Ellis Island, that is legal immigration. They were sponsored and the sponsors guaranteed that they would not become wards of the state.Both worked for their sponsors for several years before striking out on their own. Immigration police patrolled the streets of New York and could stop anyone and ask for their immigration papers. Failure to produce the documents meant a return to Ellis Island until the document could be produced or deportation. No doubt there were illegal entries but that was not the majority as it seems to be today. Emma Lazarus's poem had no effect on immigration policy then nor should it now.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

by Jaclyn Clark for Unsplash

After Bella

In truth, I know nothing
of her secret or public life.

Kwame DawesOctober 17, 2017
In a zombie world, the good Samaritan would be toast.
Patrick GallagherOctober 17, 2017
Pope Francis answers questions from journalists aboard his flight from Malmo, Sweden, to Rome Nov. 1. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis confessed that while he has “chutzpah,” “I am also timid.”
Gerard O'ConnellOctober 17, 2017
Callista Gingrich, wife of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has been nominated by President Donald Trump to be the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. She is pictured as her husband speaks at Peachtree Academy in Covington, Georgia, in this Feb. 29, 2012, file photo. (CNS photo/Erik S. Lesser, EPA)
23 senators voted against Ms. Gingrich’s confirmation, a departure from previous nominations that faced little opposition.
Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 16, 2017