A historian and director of the organization that has the original manuscript of Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” the iconic poem displayed on the Statue of Liberty, is disappointed but “not surprised” by Trump administration official Ken Cuccinelli suggesting a rewriting of the poem to defend new immigration restrictions.
“To see how something so expressive of the country’s greatest ideals, to see how it could be so contorted or distorted, is really, I think dismay is the only word,” said historian Annie Polland, the executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society in New York, adding that she was “not surprised because we’ve been hearing these sentiments more than we have in the past.”
In an interview with NPR Tuesday, Cuccinelli, the Trump administration’s acting immigration chief, attempted to defend a new “public charge” rule effectively barring legal immigrants on government benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid from becoming permanent residents — by suggesting a rephrasing of the famous poem.
“Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge,” Cuccinelli said.
“When people say things that I think are such distortions of history, how can we use these moments to get people to actually delve into the real history, and uncover something deeper and more truthful?”
The organization has Lazarus’ original handwritten copy of “The New Colossus” and a collection of artifacts on the poet, allowing Polland “to have had this amazing privilege to expose people to it, to teach it to people, and to see how people react to it, and also to see how so many people view it as sacred,” she said. “They’ll come in and see this book, and will read it out loud, and people are visibly moved by it.”
According to Polland, Lazarus originally wrote the poem for an 1883 auction raising money for the statue’s pedestal. The poem was added to the statue in 1903, after fading from public memory after Lazarus’ death in 1887. In the decades since, the poem has come to symbolize the United States’ history of immigration, and become synonymous with the statue itself.
“It was Emma and ‘The New Colossus’ that gave it its identity as a beacon of immigration,” Polland said.
Polland argued that the poem “is as much about who America or what America should be, as it is about immigrants,” she said, pointing to Lazarus’ words themselves. “In many ways, America defines itself by how it’s welcoming immigrants, in contrast to Europe.”
For example, she noted that Lazarus refers to Europe when writing: “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” — with “storied pomp” referring to Europe’s “made-up notions of some kind of grandeur and that they’re above everything,” Polland said.
Polland also views the poem as a sign of hope triumphing against fear, observing that when Lazarus wrote the poem, there was deep anti-Semitism, and the country had just established the Chinese Exclusion Act.
“When Emma Lazarus wrote that poem, she knew that not all Americans agreed with her,” she said. “So in a way, looking back on that poem and seeing how someone could write so beautifully about this ideal, even at a time that it was challenged, I think, gives us hope.”
The American Jewish Historical Society recently developed a curriculum for students and teachers, based on the poet, her iconic poem and the historical context surrounding it.
The final activity in the curriculum invites students to write their own poems inspired by “The New Colossus” and the Statue of Liberty. The goal, Polland said, is to use Lazarus “as a model of how to encourage students to be civic participants.”
Next month, the organization is launching a nationwide student poetry contest, and later this year, it will host an exhibit on Lazarus’ life and legacy.
Polland said that Cuccinelli’s comments, as well as similar anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies from the Trump administration, “if anything,” can help start a larger conversation about history.
“When people say things that I think are such distortions of history, how can we use these moments to get people to actually delve into the real history, and uncover something deeper and more truthful?” she said. “More meaningful, certainly.”