White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller brushed aside a reference to the famous poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty at Wednesday’s White House press briefing, noting that it was added after the monument was erected in the US.
As part of a question about President Donald Trump’s support for a new skills-based immigration proposal, CNN’s Jim Acosta invoked Emma Lazarus’s poetic words.
“The Statue of Liberty says, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.’ It doesn’t say anything about speaking English or being a computer programmer,” Acosta said. “Aren’t you trying to change what it means to be an immigrant coming into this country if you’re telling them that you have to speak English?”
Miller responded that as a requirement to be naturalized, “you have to speak English,” and continued, “so the notion that speaking English wouldn’t be a part of immigration systems would be very ahistorical.”
He went on: “Secondly, I don’t want to get off into a whole thing about history here, but the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of American liberty lighting the world. The poem that you’re referring to was added later (and) is not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.”
Lazarus originally wrote the sonnet, entitled “The New Colossus,” to raise funds for the statue’s pedestal in 1883. The sculpture itself, which sits in the New York Harbor and was visible on the path to the immigration checkpoint at Ellis Island, was a gift from France to the US.
It was not until 1903 that Lazarus’s words were inscribed on a bronze plaque and attached to the inner wall of the Statue of Liberty, 17 years after its original unveiling in 1886.
The sonnet ends with the personified Lady Liberty’s iconic words of welcome to immigrants:
“‘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!'”
New Jersey historian John T. Cunningham wrote that the Statue of Liberty “was not conceived and sculpted as a symbol of immigration, but it quickly became so as immigrant ships passed under the torch and the shining face, heading toward Ellis Island. However,” he continued, “it was (Lazarus’s poem) that permanently stamped on Miss Liberty the role of unofficial greeter of incoming immigrants.”
More than 130 years after the Statue of Liberty’s unveiling, some have used the message of welcome to immigrants as an argument against Trump’s proposed travel ban and immigration crackdowns.
Several members of Congress expressed disappointment in Miller’s remarks about immigration Wednesday, including Pennsylvania Democrat Brendan Boyle, who called it “disgusting.”
Congressman Lacy Clay, a Missouri Democrat, also retweeted a clip of the exchange, adding that it is “shameful to see such naked intolerance at the White House,” and “nothing is more American than #immigration.”
In a speech at the White House Wednesday, Trump backed efforts from Republican Sens. David Perdue and Tom Cotton to curb the level of legal immigration into the United States through a skills-based system.
The new legislation — if passed — would limit the types of family members of immigrants that can be brought to the US to primarily spouses and minor children, would eliminate the international diversity visa lottery, and restrict the number of annual refugee admissions.