What is in the meaning of a poem?
That question has perhaps never had more import than it does now, as we struggle to grasp both the genesis and meaning of our nation’s identity.
Emma Lazarus’ 1883 sonnet “The New Colossus” has been a topic of debate in the last week, after the president imposed a “public charge” rule to bar immigrants who might qualify for public services, and our nation’s top immigration official first tried to amend Lazarus’ poem to exclude “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” then implied those lines only applied to white people in the first place.
Both the president’s new mandate and Ken Cuccinelli’s “send us your wealthy white people” revision of Lazarus’ sonnet are a betrayal not only of the poem and its long-standing homage to the Statue of Liberty, but of the labors and history of all whose forbears were not exclusively Native American.
To understand this, we need only read Lazarus’ own words:
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!”
Lazarus wrote those words to raise funds for Lady Liberty’s pedestal — to lift, in both a literal and figurative sense — the torch of liberty for the world to see.
She did not write from the experience of the tired, poor, huddled masses. Her family fled persecution to come to America before the Revolution, and had become quite wealthy and successful. From her position of privilege and ease, Lazarus chose not to slam the door behind her, but to advocate for a statue originally designed to honor freed slaves, and to light a lamp beside the golden door to prosperity for the world’s poor, oppressed and displaced.
How many of us can claim our family histories, at some point, do not include someone described in Lazarus’ poem?
For the bulk of Americans — including those most ardently crying to slam the door in immigrants’ faces today — a stroll back through the family tree will eventually land on someone who arrived in this country with little but the clothes on their back and the hope of making for their children a brighter future. The alternative, in most cases, is ancestors who were stolen and brought here by force as slaves — a family history of fighting for liberty and equality.
To ignore this fundamental nature of our shared history is to betray the very roots of our nation. For most of us, it is a betrayal of our families.
America is and has been great not in spite of, but because of immigrants, and because of the descendants of those who had no say about being brought to our shores. Our greatness, if we can claim any as a nation, has not been the colossus of our wealth, our power and prestige. The New Colossus, the revolutionary and redeeming quality of America, has been our ability to welcome the destitute and displaced, and to give them opportunity to create for themselves and their descendants a freer, safer and more prosperous future.
The financial strength of this nation has been a byproduct, not the definition, of our greatness. As the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania noted in 2016, “immigration leads to more innovation, a better educated workforce, greater occupational specialization, better matching of skills with jobs, and higher overall economic productivity.” Immigrants have always come here to build a better future. In the process, they’ve — we’ve — built a stronger America with each new arrival.
Is that no longer the case? The president’s new policy signals to the world, and to Americans, we are no longer a land of opportunity. America is no longer a land where the poor, the oppressed, the exiled and downtrodden can come and build a better life. America is no longer a land of dreams and possibility.
I do not believe that is true. I believe in the great experiment of America — an experiment born of immigrants, still advancing toward the realization of its potential for all people. Either we honor and advance that effort, or we surrender, extinguish the torch of Liberty and create of America what most of our ancestors escaped — a classist land where the door of opportunity is slammed in the face of all not lucky enough to be born into wealth.
To choose the former path is harder. But, it is the only way to preserve the foundation and meaning — the greatness — of our nation. Choosing the latter path — well, that’s easier. And it is a betrayal of all American generations, past, present and future. The choice is ours.