Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…

There’s been justified uproar over Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stating back in August on NPR that the poem on the Statue of Liberty that reads “give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” really means, or should mean, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

NPR invited Kunal Parker, an immigration historian and professor at the University of Miami School of Law, to address this re-interpretation, and in general he does a good job.  But he fails to put the “public charge” sentence of the 1882 immigration Act Cuccinelli was misusing into its full context, as we did back when we posted about the original Cuccinelli interview:

The 1882 “Act to regulate immigration” had three parts. First, it said that 50 cents would be collected from every immigrant who arrived in a U.S. port and the money would be used to create a fund “to be called the immigrant fund, and shall be used to defray the expense of regulating immigration under this act, and for the care of immigrants arriving in the U.S. for the relief of such as are in distress…” Contrast that with what’s happening on our southern border today, or in any city or town where immigrants are living under the threat of roundup and deportation.

Next, it said that any passengers found to be a “convict, lunatic, idiot, or other person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge, they shall report the same… and such persons shall not be permitted to land.” Nowhere in this is a person’s ability to make a living without ever relying on charity or federal relief—since government welfare did not exist at the time—mentioned. This is addressing debilitating mental illness.

Finally, the Act says that “…from time to time [issue] instructions [best] calculated to protect the U.S. and immigrants into the U.S. from fraud and loss…” –perhaps the fraud and loss of being refused citizenship after taking advantage of social services legally offered.

Unfortunately, few Americans know their own history well enough to recognize these types of misrepresentations. They fall prey to them, and come to doubt our mandate in an especially destructive way: they become cynical. Liberty and justice for all is only quoted to shame the U.S. as representing a mission that we have never lived up to, that we have always deliberately violated. U.S. history is presented as an unrelieved series of crimes and deliberate injustice.

We should also have gone back to the poem on the Statue of Liberty, as it is a powerful context for all immigration to the U.S., but particularly since the Statue was dedicated in October 1886.

The poem is called “The New Colossus”. Its author is Emma Lazarus, born in New York City in 1849. Her Jewish family had come from Portugal to the U.S. at the time of the Revolution, and in her poetry Lazarus focused on the challenges of being a Jewish-American. She was born into wealth, and was publishing her work in her teens. When she was 17, her father had her original poems and translations of European poets published. Through the 1860s and 70s Lazarus read fiction and poetry by and about Jewish Europeans, and when Russia began another series of genocidal pogroms against its Jewish citizens, Lazarus did not just read about it. She became intimately involved in the lives of Russian Jewish refugees who landed in New York. Lazarus worked at Ward’s Island assisting refugees who were detained by Castle Garden immigration officials. In 1882, she published Songs of a Semite: The Dance to Death and Other Poems.

A year later, she was asked to write a sonnet that would be auctioned off to raise money to build the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty that was arriving in pieces from France. Lazarus agreed after some deliberation, realizing it was a perfect opportunity to connect the plight of refugees, who looked so disreputable and unwanted to Americans who sat securely outside their troubles, with the purpose and mission of America itself–the United States existed in order to welcome in all who sought freedom.

The poem was auctioned, and it was published in two New York City newspapers. Then it disappeared from public memory, perhaps in part because Lazarus herself died just three years later, one year after the Statue of Liberty was dedicated. She was just 38.

In 1901, Lazarus’ friend Georgina Schulyer found “The New Colossus” included in a book of poetry in a New York bookshop and led a campaign to make the poem what Lazarus had intended it to be–the writing on the door to America. Two years later, the poem was written on a plaque on the inner wall of the pedestal it helped to fund.

Americans today probably don’t know the title of this poem, but they know the last of its stirring words by heart:

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!”