Don’t Let the Trump Administration Rewrite Emma Lazarus

Ken Cuccinelli, the failed Virginia gubernatorial candidate who has been given the unenviable task of promoting the Trump administration’s latest plan to discriminate against immigrants, has stirred some controversy with his crude rewrite of “The New Colossus.” But in doing so he has invited Americans who care about our history to recall the radical inspiration and intent of the Emma Lazarus poem that is so intertwined with the Statue of Liberty.

Cuccinelli, the acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, appeared this week on NPR’s Morning Edition to argue for new “public charge” policies that would make it easier to reject visa and green card applications from working-class immigrants who might need public benefits at some point in the future.

NPR’s Rachel Martin asked Cuccinelli a good question: “Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus’s words etched on the Statue of Liberty, ‘Give me your tired, give me your poor,’ are also a part of the American ethos?”

It was Cuccinelli’s reply that raised the eyebrows of those who know the story of Lazarus and her poem. “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,’” he answered, reworking not just the words but also the intent of the poem. Cuccinelli then added, “That plaque was put on the Statue of Liberty at almost the same time as the first public charge was passed—very interesting timing.” Very interesting, indeed.

Emma Lazarus was raised in a prominent New York family that had roots in the city going back to long before the American Revolution. She was well-educated and well-established in the city of her birth. She had experienced success as a poet and traveled in the circles of the intellectual and literary stars of her time. She was, as well, an activist who championed the radical reform movement led by political economist Henry George. She embraced George’s campaigning, as an author and a candidate for mayor of New York, to alleviate poverty and address economic inequality.

George argued for public ownership and land reforms that would spread the wealth. His was a moral callto arms that influenced generations of radicals and reformers. “More is given to us than to any people at any time before; and, therefore, more is required of us,” argued George. “We have made, and still are making, enormous advances on material lines. It is necessary that we commensurately advance on moral lines. Civilization, as it progresses, requires a higher conscience, a keener sense of justice, a warmer brotherhood, a wider, loftier, truer public spirit. Falling these, civilization must pass into destruction. It cannot be maintained on the ethics of savagery.”

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