You Can Break a Law, You Can’t Break a Poem
National Public Radio reporter Rachel Martin recently interviewed Ken Cucinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. During the course of their discussion, she asked him if the Trump administration’s new public charge rule violated the ethos represented by the poem inscribed on a plaque inside the base of the Statue of Liberty — “New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus. Mr. Cuccinelli replied that it did not, immigrants should be required to financially stand on their own two feet.
Thus emerged one of the dopiest political narratives to come out of the mainstream media in recent memory. And most major news outlets began treating Emma Lazarus’ sonnet as a binding, statutory proclamation of U.S. immigration rules. The “Law of Lazarus,” if you will.
In short, mainstream journalists claimed that “New Colossus” is the definitive statement of what it means to be a “nation of immigrants.” And they asserted that plans to enforce public charge rules, which require that immigrants refrain from accepting means tested public benefits during their first five years in the United States, were merely a cover for limiting immigration to Caucasian, English speakers. They’re wrong on all counts.
In case you are unfamiliar with “New Colossus,” it is a 14 line sonnet that ends with the oft-quoted lines:
“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 tome,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The poem was written by Ms. Lazarus specifically to be auctioned off as part of the campaign to raise funds for the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty was erected. Her verse was only added to the monument in 1903, following her death. And, as anyone who has visited the statue can tell you, it’s nestled away in an interior stairwell and doesn’t feature prominently.
Despite assertions to the contrary, it is clear that Ms. Lazarus was not arguing for open borders. She was a well-known advocate for Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in Czarist Russia. And her verse compares the Statue ofLiberty, which symbolizes freedom and a republican form of government, to the ancient Colossus of Rhodes, which Ms. Lazarus used to represent a hidebound old world.
Rather than a general statement advocating that the U.S. accept only poor migrants, her poem was an acknowledgement that the America had become a prime destination for those seeking personal liberty – including the liberty to succeed by dint of one’s own labors. It celebrates those who wished to make their own way in the world, free from the religious, social and political strictures that were prominent in 19th Century Europe.
It does not refer not to poverty-stricken immigrants searching for a social safety net. In fact, as Daniel Horowitz writing at Conservative Review has noted, “There was no welfare when Emma Lazarus wrote that poem, nor did it exist throughout the entire duration of the Great Wave of immigration. By definition, someone coming here during that era, even if they were currently poor, was engaging in a risky act of rugged individualism whereby they had to sink or swim on their own.” As such, says Horowitz, Lazarus’ poem “means exactly the opposite of what immigrant welfare advocates think.”
So, why has the borderless-world contingent locked onto a schmaltzy piece of middling verse as if it represented the Founding Fathers’ be-all end-all vision of immigration policy? Because despite their best efforts, immigrant advocates and their media allies have not persuaded Americans that the U.S is obligated to admit and pay for every foreigner who comes knocking on our door.
Lacking any rational arguments against longstanding immigration requirements that protect American taxpayers from financial ruin, the open borders lobby appeals to raw emotion and accuses the president of violating the “generous” national spirit that allegedly prevailed when Ellis Island made America great. However, there’s a huge problem with their logic. Immigrants who go on the dole are breaking the law – not violating a questionable interpretation of a poorly understood poem.