“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Most Americans probably know these words, which are inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty along with the rest of the poem “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus.
The etched-in-stone words, along with the statue itself, have long represented America’s welcoming of immigrants.
Until Stephen Miller, senior policy adviser to President Donald Trump, downplayed the poem’s significance in an Aug. 2 press briefing.
Miller was discussing the new Trump-approved immigration bill that would cut legal immigration in half within a decade. Under it, rather than favoring people who already have relatives here, a new system would favor immigrants who speak better English and are more educated or skilled.
CNN White House Correspondent Jim Acosta cited the famous lines of poetry when suggesting that this new bill is inconsistent with American tradition regarding immigration.
Miller’s bizarre response was that while the Statue of Liberty is “a symbol of American liberty lighting the world,” the poem was not part of the “original” statue, but was added later.
He seemed to be implying that because the poem wasn’t immediately inscribed on the statue, it was neither significant nor representative of American immigration tradition.
Miller said he didn’t “want to get off into a whole thing about history,” but maybe he does need a history lesson.
He’s right that while the Statue of Liberty was completed in 1886, the poem wasn’t added to the pedestal until 1903. But he was wrong to imply such a divide between the two, because from the beginning, the poem was written for the statue.
As the French worked on the statue, the Americans prepared the pedestal, but funds were low. Lazarus wrote her sonnet as a donation to an auction that was raising money for the pedestal. The poem was first read at the auction, but it was then forgotten and Lazarus died in 1887. Her friend Georgina Schuyler led the effort to memorialize Lazarus, and she succeeded in 1903.
Despite the 16-year delay, the statue and the poem were closely related before the statue even made it to its home on Liberty Island. So, for Miller to imply that the poem lacks significance simply because of when a plaque was added to a pedestal is absurd. In fact, the Liberty Ellis Foundation wrote on its website that “Lady Liberty’s significance grew as an inspiration to immigrants” with the addition of the poem.
By Miller’s logic, maybe the United States Constitution lacks significance because it was written 11 years after our country’s founding.
And the proposed bill does contradict American immigration tradition, which is represented by the poem despite Miller’s protests. As Acosta pointed out, the poem does not say give us your fluent English speakers or computer programmers. Instead, Lady Liberty welcomes any and all into our country.
The bill is expected to meet bipartisan resistance, so it likely won’t make it very far. The poem, however, has been there for 114 years and doesn’t seem to be coming down anytime soon.