While experts say there are a number of interpretations of the poem inscribed on the foot of the Statue of Liberty, they agree that the interpretation of U.S. Immigration and Services head Ken Cuccinelli is not one of them.
Cuccinelli made the comments one day after the Trump administration announced its new immigration policy proposal, which would aim to deny green cards to migrants who seek Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance.
The poem inscribed on the foot of Lady Liberty, written by Emma Lazarus in 1883, has become part of the discourse around immigration policy in the United States and has been used by Democrats and immigration advocates to fight against Trump’s immigration policies.
The frequently cited and disputed phrase is:
“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!”
Here’s what Lazarus is believed to have meant and how experts say it should be interpreted today.
Where does the poem come from?
According to Edward Berenson, the author of Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story, the statue was originally commissioned by French abolitionists who wanted to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.
Because the statue took a little more than 20 years to build, the meaning associated with the statue changed by the time it was unveiled, he said.
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“Americans in 1880, when the statue went up, had very different ideas about liberty,” he said.
Emma Lazarus was from a prosperous Jewish family in New York City and was asked to write the poem — which she entitled The New Colossus — to raise money for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal.
Berenson says Lazarus was inspired by the work she did in the early 20th century with Jewish immigrants, with hopes of improving their conditions as they waited for entry to the United States.
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This, Berenson stated, is where The New Colossus originated.
“That’s where she got her idea that the United States, symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, would represent a welcomed second chance at freedom from oppression. To Lazarus, it was especially Jewish immigrants who were fleeing persecution,” Berenson said.
How is it typically interpreted?
Berenson went on to state that while European immigrants were largely granted “open border” privilege when entering the United States in the late 19th century and early 20th century, he does not believe The New Colossus should be interpreted to refer only to European immigrants.
“The idea of Emma Lazarus’ poem — it wasn’t ‘give me your people who are, or who are immediately going to be able to, stand on their own two feet.’ No, we Americans are going to help people who have been oppressed gain the ability to stand on their own two feet,” Berenson said.
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Henry Giroux, a scholar with McMaster University and a cultural critic, believes The New Colossus‘ famous verse should be taken at face value.
“It says, people who are in need, people who are in danger, people who are poor, people who are fleeing from authoritarian countries and people who need assistance are people who can come to the United States and make their own way and be part of a widely diverse country,” he explained.
“It’s a testimony to compassion.”
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