She Was Never About Those Huddled Masses By Roberto Suro Sunday, July 5, 2009
The Statue of Liberty’s crown is open again for the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks. … So, to mark this occasion, I’d like to suggest a little surgery that will make the symbol more appropriate today: Let’s get rid of The Poem.
I'm talking about "Give me your tired, your poor . . . " — that poem, "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, which sometimes seems to define us as a nation even more than Lady Liberty herself.
Inscribed on a small brass plaque mounted inside the statue’s stone base, the poem is an appendix, added belatedly, and it can safely be removed, shrouded or at least marked with a big asterisk. We live in a different era of immigration, and the schmaltzy sonnet offers a dangerously distorted picture of the relationship between newcomers and their new land.
The most enduring meaning conveyed by Lady Liberty has nothing do with immigration, and I say let’s go back to that. The statue’s original name is “Liberty Enlightening the World,” and the tablet the lady holds in her left hand reads “July IV, MDCCLXXVI” to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Lady Liberty celebrates U.S. political values as a force for the betterment of humanity, as well as the bond of friendship among freedom-loving nations. That’s a powerful and worthy message.
And the message would have been the same if the statue had ended up in Philadelphia or Cleveland — both were possibilities when New York was having trouble raising money for the pedestal in the late 1870s. Far from Ellis Island, no one would associate it with immigration. Too bad, because on this subject Lady Liberty misleads more than she illuminates, especially with Lazarus’s added spin.
In Lazarus’s vision, the statue would be called “Mother of Exiles,” and it would stand by “the golden door” welcoming “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” That is a distinctly political perspective on immigration: the United States as a refuge for the oppressed. The truth is that our political values do not explain who comes here or why.
Economic imperatives, much more than political aspirations, have always driven immigration to the United States. Planters, merchants, servants and slaves vastly outnumbered Pilgrims and Puritans. …
Lazarus is also wrong in portraying immigrants as “tired . . . poor . . . wretched refuse . . . the homeless, tempest-tost.” Does that describe your ancestors, whoever they were, wherever they came from? (Okay, I am biased because I come from restless people, movers to Latin America from Spain in the 17th and 19th centuries and from Germany in the 20th, and parents who left Ecuador and Puerto Rico for the United States in the 1930s.) Our family legends — and historical fact — teach us that immigrants have been the ambitious and the adventurous, the ones battling storms to get to a better place, and they have rarely been the poorest of the poor, if only because it takes money to travel. Some have made it here with the help of employers or refugee aid programs, but even they had to show more pluck than you’d expect from “huddled masses,” a term that describes those who get left behind better than those who get up and leave.
Perhaps the poet can be forgiven. Her experiences informed her verse, and she wrote it to advance a very specific cause. But we do her no injustice by deciding that the words do not serve as an ode to immigration today.
Born into a wealthy family that traced its roots to New York City’s earliest Jewish residents, Lazarus was a social activist as well as an accomplished writer. She lent a hand at the station on Wards Island where destitute immigrants were detained, and she helped set up a training school in the tenements. When Lazarus wrote the poem in 1883, she was a prominent advocate for Jews fleeing the pogroms of imperial Russia.
It took a long time for Lady Liberty and the huddled masses to become completely intertwined. Most of the early mythologizing of the statue played on its patriotic appeal. The poem, written for a charity auction that raised money for the statue’s pedestal, was never commercially published and got no mention at the statue’s grand opening in 1886. Lazarus died a year later at age 38. In 1903, her friend from New York high society, Georgina Schuyler, had the plaque made to honor Lazarus. There was no ceremony when it was placed on a stairway landing inside the pedestal. For decades it went largely unnoticed, a memorial to a writer and reformer who died young rather than a defining inscription for the statue.
Immigrants arriving in New York Harbor celebrated the statue, but as John Higham, the great historian of American immigration, tells it, the poem and the image of the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of welcome gained broad currency only after the immigrant ships stopped coming. The “golden door” was slammed shut by highly restrictive national quotas enacted in 1924. Then, during the Great Depression and World War II, it became popular to herald immigrants’ contributions in the interests of national unity, and the statue became part of the lore. The poem was rediscovered and popularized as part of unsuccessful campaigns to open the United States as a refuge for Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, a new version of Lazarus’s cause. In 1945, with that point moot, Schuyler’s plaque was moved to a prominent spot near the pedestal’s entrance.
The immigration door remained shut after the war, and the share of the population that had been born abroad dropped to historically low levels as the Europeans who had come through New York Harbor died. By 1970, the foreign-born made up less than 5 percent of the population, a third of what their share had been around the turn of the century.
With few newcomers arriving, the mythmaking went into full swing. Eleanor Roosevelt quoted Lazarus in an advertisement she recorded for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and in 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson used the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop when he signed legislation that increased immigration from countries most disadvantaged under the old quota system.
The apex of Lazarus's vision came with the statue's centennial in 1986. A massively commercialized four-year fundraising campaign collected more than $270 million to restore both the statue and Ellis Island, linking the two more than ever before. At the grand event on "Liberty Weekend," President Ronald Reagan spoke of his belief that "divine providence" had made the United States a home for "a special kind of people from every corner of the world, who had a special love for freedom." Unabashed, he said, "Call it mysticism if you will."
The foreign-born population has doubled in size since that July 4 and now accounts for nearly 13 percent of the total. Though many of the dynamics are the same, particularly the allure of U.S. jobs, this new inflow is different in its origins. Immigrants come mainly from Latin America and Asia rather than from Europe. With undocumented migrants making up about 30 percent of the foreign-born population, exasperation, even anger, over a broken immigration system is widespread and bipartisan. Despite extensive debates in 2006 and 2007, Washington seems no closer to new legislation. And those are just the short-term quandaries. In another decade, about one-quarter of the population under the age of 18 will be the U.S.-born children of immigrants, legal or otherwise, and what happens to them in our classrooms, workplaces and neighborhoods, much more than what happens to their parents, will determine whether this whole enterprise succeeds.
So what can we learn from Emma Lazarus, or from Ronald Reagan, for that matter? Look back with caution is my advice. Bad poetry makes for bad policy. Whether you believe that current immigration flows are too big, too small or just right, a mystical attachment to the “Mother of Exiles” can lead to treacherous misconceptions.
Roberto Suro is a professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication. He will be online Monday at 11 a.m. ET to chat with readers. Submit your questions before or during the discussion.