Now the Trump administration is trying to rewrite history — and poetry.
In an interview with National Public Radio last week, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said that the storied lines on the Statue of Liberty urging the world to “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” was an invitation to only those immigrants “who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
Um, no. In fact, the “huddled masses” line is part of a 14-line sonnet, “The New Colossus,” that Emma Lazarus — considered the nation’s first important Jewish poet — wrote in 1883 for the pedestal upon which the Statue of Liberty would eventually stand. The poem was written a year after the first Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1882, the first significant efforts to limit immigration into the United States. Yes, the latter required new arrivals to show they had the means to survive in what then was a nation without safety nets, a rule that has remained on the books ever since.
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Yet Lazarus’ poem doesn’t mention exclusions and financial requirements. Rather, she specifically refers to embracing “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” and “the homeless, tempest-tost.” Her poem says clearly and eloquently that the land of liberty should welcome immigrants from the lower economic classes — the “poor, huddled masses” — and not just those carrying purses full of gold. Lazarus, incidentally, was born in the United States but was descended from Portugese Sephardic Jews, and she was involved in helping Russian Jews settle in New York after fleeing pogroms — the very sort of displaced peoples the current White House has worked so assiduously to turn away.
Cuccinelli is a fervent immigration hardliner, an advocate of rescinding birthright citizenship, and part of an anti-immigration crew within the administration trying to turn the U.S. into a gated community — wealthy and white only, please. Yet Cuccinelli’s depiction of what U.S. immigration should be flies in the face of the American dream as well as the American experience. Legions of families have stories about their ancestors who arrived with only a few bucks in their pocket and a dream of making something of themselves. Then a business got built, or a career was pursued, and roots were set into American soil, giving rise to what we are today.
Romanticized fantasy? In some cases, yes. But it happened often enough to become an inextricable part of our national sense of self. And neither Cuccinelli nor Trump can rewrite that.