I bet you never heard of Emma Lazarus, but you’re probably familiar with the most recognizable closing phrase of her poem “The New Colossus.”
“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 powerful words in 1883 to assist fundraising efforts for the pedestal upon which the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor would stand. Her poem was later inscribed on a pedestal plaque as a welcoming message to immigrants.
Now, more than 130 years later, it seems the meaning of the phrasing has been badly misunderstood. Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, set us straight in a recent NPR interview.
Asked if the words represent the American ethos, Cuccinelli responded: “They certainly are. Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
For all these years we’ve overlooked Cuccinelli’s interpretation.
I guess we’ll also have to recast Woody Guthrie’s folk classic, “This Land is Your Land.” By Cuccinelli’s reckoning, the song did not apply to Woody, who often lived off the kindness of others, received public assistance, aided union organizers and rode the rails during the depression years.
Our country is unique in so many ways. It is not defined by geography or tribe or by hundreds of years of ethnic culture. It began with the quite radical idea the people could govern themselves.
It also offered refuge to those fleeing wars, famine, religious persecution and other forms of oppression. We didn’t always live up to those ideals. We committed ethnic genocide against Native Americans. We enslaved 400 million black people. We interred American citizens of Japanese heritage and enacted Jim Crow laws.
We’re also no longer a small population with control of a continental-sized geography requiring immigrants to grow the nation and succeed at a rate sufficient to making the United States a world player. We live in the age of terrorism and government budgets that strain to meet our basic obligations. But those aren’t reasons enough to forget who we are fundamentally, a welcoming nation of different ethnics, cultures and traditions.
We celebrate that ethnic diversity at times. The Irish, for example, were viewed as poor and unwanted at one point in our history. Today they are celebrated with St. Patrick’s Day, parades and stories of old (and powerful) political prowess. There are plenty of non-Irish across America who root for the Old Notre Dame “Fighting Irish” athletic teams.
It was much the same with Italians, Germans and other Europeans who immigrated to America in large numbers in the 19th and early 20th centuries because we were and are the land of opportunity. Hispanics and Asians did so for the same reason.
Cucinnelli, President Donald Trump and Trump advisor Stephen Miller have publicly stated they prefer fair-haired, fair-skinned, highly skilled immigrants from places like Norway over those from countries whose people are darker skinned. They’re quite willing to separate small children from their parents in order to achieve their goals.
This approach is not making America great again. It is doing the opposite, showing our worst instincts and petty behavior. The plain truth is unless you’re of Native American descent, you are either an immigrant or the descendant of immigrants who came here to build a better life.
Some of the men who conceived this nation owned slaves. And it took a civil war to unshackle them. But times have changed; the world has changed and most of all, we have changed. Let us not go backwards.
Ronnie Ellis is a columnist for CNHI’s Kentucky newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.