Following the death of seven-year-old Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin while in U.S Border Patrol custody and the president’s decision to authorize the use of tear gas against asylum-seeking families along the U.S.-Mexico border, thousands have taken to social media to repudiate the administration’s cruel and racist treatment of migrants and asylum-seekers.
In defending the U.S. as a place of refuge for the unprotected, many posts have included excerpts from Emma Lazarus’s famous 1883 sonnet, “The New Colossus.” Lazarus’s words, now emblazoned on the base of the Statute of Liberty, read in part:
“…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!”
Lazarus’s poem was itself an act of defiance against anti-immigrant policies. She drafted it at a time during which both U.S. immigration policy and foreign policy were flagrantly antagonistic to ideals like freedom, liberty, sovereignty and sanctuary. In fact, Lazarus’s poem emerged at a moment when these two intertwined sets of policies welded concepts like race and national origin to notions of displacement, migration and freedom. Lazarus recognized what those who quote her poem today see: allowing racism to shape migration policy fatally short-circuits freedom of movement and political autonomy — two hallmarks of open societies.
But using Lazarus’s sonnet to challenge current U.S. migration and asylum policy obscures the fact that racism has warped immigration policy since Lazarus’s time. Trump’s xenophobic hostility toward migrants and asylum-seekers of color is not an anomaly on an otherwise just and compassionate canvas of U.S immigration history. The truth is that Lazarus’s aspirational words never accurately reflected U.S. immigration policy, even in her own time.
In early 1883, a few close friends approached the 34-year-old Lazarus, a Jewish poet and refugee advocate, with a favor: compose a poem to be auctioned off at the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition in New York. The funds raised from the sale of her work would be used to support the construction of a pedestal to hold the Statue of Liberty, a gift the United States had recently received from France.
Lazarus drafted her remarkable words at what many historians now consider the apogee of 19th century xenophobia and colonialism. Her words exposed a deep chasm between the ideal of providing sanctuary for those “yearning to breathe free” and the suffocating reality of American law at the time.
American immigration and naturalization law had been racialized for close to a century, as the Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted naturalized citizenship to “a free white person who shall have resided … in the United States … for two years.” In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act, which went even further. Its passage represented the first major national origin statute restricting immigration to the United States. It became codifed in response to fears from native-born whites over wage depression at the hands of Chinese laborers living in California; it effectively halted Chinese immigration until 1943, when 105 Chinese immigrants a year became eligible to enter the United States.
Two years later, in 1884, the United States offered another hint of its racist views of the world, sending John A. Kasson and Henry S. Sanford to Berlin to participate in a Conference on Africa. As historian G. Macharia Munene writes, the United States was “fully aware” that the conference endeavored “to agree on the doctrine of free trade and navigation in rivers Congo and Niger and to define methods of annexing territories that had ‘not yet been subjected to the flag of any civilized state.'” In so doing, the United States put its political weight behind the invasion, occupation, colonization and annexation of Africa — the full eradication of African political autonomy — by European powers.
When Lazarus’s words were finally placed onto the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903 — which she did not live long enough to see, dying from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1887 at the age of 38 — the 57th U.S. Congress was busy passing “An Act To regulate the immigration of aliens into the United States” (also known as the Anarchist Exclusion Act or the Immigration Act of 1903). President Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill into law on March 3, 1903.
The 1903 act codified the central provisions articulated in the Immigration Act of 1891 and appended to it four inadmissible classes: “epileptics,” “professional beggars,” “anarchists” and “persons who procure or attempt to bring in prostitutes or women for the purpose of prostitution.”
American immigration policy would continue to grow increasingly restrictive for another six decades, with legislation like the Immigration Act of 1917 and the Immigration Act of 1924 making it harder for immigrants to seek safety in the U.S., and treating immigrants, and even some Americans of foreign descent, with contempt. Even after the United States started coming closer to meeting its ideals in immigration policy, ending national-origin quotas in 1965, it continued to trample on the sovereignty of nation-state in Africa, Asia and Central and South America.
Though Lazarus was a fierce advocate of what today would be known as sanctuary for asylum-seekers, her words have been weaponized as ideological cover for those who believe the current administration’s immigration policy does not reflect who we have been as a country. And yet, the Trump administration policy is far more the American norm than Lazarus's lofty words.
Accepting this shameful history of xenophobia is a prerequisite to challenging the racist basis of historical immigration statutes and helping lay a foundation for building migration and asylum policies grounded in need, compassion, justice and inclusion. Only then can we look to Lazarus’s words as emblematic of America.