A top Trump administration official says that the famous inscription on the Statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants into the country is about “people coming from Europe.”
The acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, said Tuesday that the poem by Emma Lazarus referred to “people coming from Europe” and that America is looking to receive migrants “who can stand on their own two feet.”
Cuccinelli is wrong.
Lazarus’ poem does not refer to “people coming from Europe,” nor does it reject the poor.
It reads: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
Written in 1883 to raise money to construct the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, the poem was cast in bronze beneath the monument in 1903. The statue and the poem’s words have served as a beacon to millions of immigrants as they first entered the nation in New York Harbor.
A biographer of the poet who wrote the words inscribed on the statue challenged Cuccinelli’s interpretation of the poem.
Biographer Esther Schor says Lazarus’ words were her way of urging Americans to embrace the poor and destitute “of all places and origins.” Lazarus wrote the poem in 1883, a year after Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned laborers from China.
Beginning in the 1930s, supporters of immigration began using the poem to bolster their cause. Schor says Lazarus was “deeply involved” in refugee causes.
The Statue of Liberty has had a special place for Americans of African descent.
“The black press championed the French-American project; and African Americans contributed to the pedestal fund, participated in the public celebrations for its unveiling in New York City and conducted their own,” according to a report by Rebecca M. Joseph with Brooke Rosenblatt and Carolyn Kinebrew posted on the website of the National Park Service.
“Blacks were among the immigrants whose first sight of the United States was the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor,” the report said. “In the early 20th century, African Americans died because of the perverse appropriation of the statue’s symbolism by white racists.”
Only racist believed that the Statue of Liberty only welcomed Europeans.
So why did Cuccinelli make a statement that was so obviously wrong? He was trying to defend a Trump administration policy that has come under fire.
Cuccinelli’s comments came as Democrats and immigrant-rights groups blasted a new Trump administration policy that could deny green cards to migrants who seek public assistance. The changes could scare immigrants away from asking for needed help.
The new policy is a continuation of Trump’s stance against immigrants, particularly those from Muslim and nonwhite countries.
This summer marked the one-year anniversary of the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban. The court narrowly ruled that the administration’s arbitrary travel restrictions against citizens of Syria, Iran, Yemen, Libya and Somalia, as well as against Venezuela and North Korea, was constitutional.
Trump is increasingly using the language of white nationalists.
Trump recently attacked four liberal congresswomen, telling them to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” Three of the four were born in the U.S., and they’re all U.S. citizens. The one immigrant in the group — Rep. Ilhan Omar — is a refugee from Somalia, a country whose residents are now effectively banned from entering the United States.
Trump has spoken disparagingly about immigration from majority Black and Hispanic countries, including calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals when he launched his 2016 campaign. Last year, he privately referred to Central American and African nations as “s--thole” countries and suggested the U.S. take in more immigrants from European countries such as predominantly white Norway.
Unlike the Trump administration’s policy on immigration, the Statue of Liberty is an inclusive symbol that embraces all migrants regardless of race, religion, nationality or economic status.