Emma Lazarus and Trump’s Immigration Policy

The Statue of Liberty became a subject of a White House press conference on August 2.

Reports of that press briefing brought attention to the poem inscribed on a plaque that adorns the pedestal of the statue, a poem composed in 1883, almost twenty years after France gave the statue to the United States to celebrate the centennial of America’s independence from England.

The poem had been solicited from Emma Lazarus, a well-known New York City socialite and writer, to be auctioned for funds to help build the pedestal on which the statue now stands.

At the White House news conference on August 2, Jim Acosta, a CNN reporter (whose father, he told the speaker, was a Cuban refugee), challenged the speaker, senior advisor Stephen Miller, who was outlining President Trump’s proposed immigration policy.

“What the President is proposing here does not sound like it’s in keeping with American tradition when it comes to immigration,” Acosta said. He went on to quote the lines from Lazarus’s poem, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Miller’s ranting, ad hominem rejoinder entailed a pedantic history lesson that correctly noted: “The poem that you’re referring to, that was added later, is not actually a part of the original Statue of Liberty.”

Despite his pompous attempt to separate the poem from the statue, Miller, known for his supra-nationalist and anti-immigration perspectives, was incorrect in identifying the poem as “America Enlightening the World.” The French entitled their gift to America “Liberty Enlightening the World.”

The Washington Post characterized the heated exchange between Miller and Acosta as “a symbolic tug-of-war that has been particularly important on the far right, where the longtime mission has been to cut the statue free from immigration.”

As the Post went on to outline, Lazarus herself has been a target of anti-socialist, anti-semitic, and racist arguments, citing Rush Limbaugh, David Duke, and Richard Spencer as attackers of her and her poem.

Lazarus died at 38, a year after her poem was introduced at the dedication of the statue in 1886. Though her poem was read aloud, women were not invited to the Bedloe’s Island ceremony. She witnessed the dedication with a group of women aboard a vessel in the harbor.

The poem, largely ignored and forgotten until 1903, became famous when a plaque containing it was attached to the statue’s pedestal. From that day on, almost every school child in New York City learned to recite her most famous lines–the same lines Acosta quoted in his exchange with Miller at the White House.

Lazarus called her poem “The New Colossus,” and a careful reading of its opening lines indicates she was trying to separate America’s symbol of liberty from the arrogant, defensive view of the Greeks who erected the original “Colossus” at Rhodes.

Her response to the invitation soliciting the poem was to say she couldn’t write a poem to a statue! What Mr. Miller seems to have missed is that while the poem is separate from the statue as an icon, it augments the idea of liberty that the French recognized in the American Republic.

The poem remains unmistakably attached to the statue’s symbolism of “liberty for all” as surely as the Bill of Rights girds the Constitution despite those amendments being enrolled at a later date to the ratified Constitution.

Lazarus wrote the poem to honor the freedom found in the United States by Russian-Jewish refugees in New York City, many of whom she taught. She understood that the statue was more important as a symbol of welcome to refugees than as a defensive warning to approaching ships. She framed the accurate appellation on the statue: “Mother of Exiles.”

The real problem here as I see it is that Mr. Miller exhibits a disrespectful attitude toward poetry. I cheer Mr. Acosta for quoting lines from a memorized poem in attempting to challenge a mean-spirited immigration policy.

Unfortunately, the defenders of poetry in contemporary political life are few and far between–and that includes many in the world of journalism. (I intend to explore this problem in a later post, citing former White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers as an ally.)

Judge for yourself. Here’s Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, The New Colossus:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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!”


Allow me to call readers’ attention to a post of mine written in October 2011 that offers a memory of my being born and nurtured in Brooklyn, New York. Importantly, many of the streets in which I played, grew, and became educated provided views of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. As I note, during my childhood, the statue was my neighbor. (“Mother of Exiles at 125”):  http://wp.me/p86oI1-29


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