This past 4th of July holiday, I took the day off from writing this weekly commentary. Instead, I simply displayed these key words from the famous plaque at our Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
The words come from a poem written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 to raise money for the construction of a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. In 1903, the poem was cast onto a bronze plaque and mounted inside the pedestal’s lower level.
Although those words don’t date back to 1776 and the founding of our nation, I thought they summed up a standard of behavior for our United States that began to germinate with the writing of our Declaration of Independence. It has grown into a worthy ideal that has repeatedly reminded Americans – at least, I believe, the majority of Americans – that offering a harbor of hope to people of goodwill, hungry to thrive in a free society, is a quality America should always champion.
But yesterday, Ken Cuccinelli, President Trump’s acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, clarified the Trump Administration’s understanding of those inspiring words. He said the Emma Lazarus poem only referred to “people coming from Europe.” As he put it, “people who can stand on their own two feet.”
Before I even get into how misguided his words were, I have to point out that Mr. Cuccinelli’s boss, Donald J. Trump, has owned businesses that have pleaded for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on at least 4 occasions. – It seems “standing on your own two feet” is easier when you can force your numerous creditors to eat a lot of the debt you created.
I also see some irony in that Mr. Cuccinelli’s name, although of European extraction, likely gave his forebears a bit of trouble when they came to our shores from Italy. Although it is a European nation, Italians were not always welcomed with open arms by many long-time American citizens. I cannot believe Cuccinelli isn’t aware of this, however I can believe he has about the same amount of empathy and perspective as his leader – zilch.
But I digress. Ken Cuccinelli’s comments were made a day after the Trump Administration announced it will work to deny green cards to migrants who seek Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance.
I suspect that a lot of this new positioning has to do with the Trump 2020 Presidential Campaign and its appeal to Trump’s hardcore supporters. They want their voters to view the Latin American refugees in our country and on our border as undeserving of any “safe harbor,” no matter what their reasons for seeking asylum.
The Trump Administration would like their audience to believe that we got where we are today thanks to the work ethic and wholesome values of longtime American citizens, not “outsiders” who don’t look like us and who “expect government handouts.” (I should also mention that for a lot of our history, our nation’s economic success was aided by the labor of several million non-Europeans known to census takers as “slaves.”)
I guess if you revised the words of poet Lazarus to reflect the new Trump policies, it might read like this: “Give me your well-educated, your financially secure, your select group of people prepared to add immediately to the U.S. GDP…”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for smart, successful, entrepreneurial men and women emigrating to our United States and future citizenship. We want people who will add their skills to our economic growth. (As long as they aren’t some variety of criminal.) But excluding a broad diversity of backgrounds from that pool would be a stupid move.
And as for Cuccinelli’s “Europeans only” interpretation, in 2016 Forbes magazine listed 45 foreign-born billionaires who made their fortunes in the U.S. These are the countries they came from: Argentina, Australia, Burma, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Korea, Morocco, Pakistan, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Vietnam.
Some of those successful immigrants came here already equipped with an education and sufficient funds to the quickly get started. But others came equipped with little more than their brains and a strong will to succeed in a country that allows such success to happen, regardless of your background.
I think we all know that our nation’s behavior has been far less noble than the inspiring words at the base of Lady Liberty would indicate. Nevertheless, the ideal expressed there has repeatedly resurfaced over the years. Today, it is gratifying to see the present push back from Americans across the country against the treatment of Central American refugee families at our southern border.
That’s what striving for an ideal brings — whether you set it for your own personal behavior or, as a people, for the behavior of our entire nation. It may never be fully achieved but aspiring to reach it makes us better and stronger than we would otherwise be.
Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973
P.S. Emma Lazarus’ poem alludes to the Collussus of Rhodes, one of the “seven wonders of the ancient world.” According to legend, the gigantic statue stood at the entrance to the main port of Rhodes, with one foot on each side of the entrance. Our statue of liberty was going to be placed in New York Harbor, between the welcoming twin cities of New York and Brooklyn (not yet absorbed as a borough). Here is the poem in its entirety:
The New Collussus
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!”