These ideas are at stark odds with the welcoming stance that many Americans embrace and that has been central to our country’s cherished symbols. For decades, schoolchildren have recited lines from the poem that adorns the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” has long been understood as an illustration of the ideal and promise of American immigration. These words evoke a history of welcoming millions to these golden shores.
As the Trump administration works to close the gates to immigrants, even embracing bizarre and violent rhetoric to turn people away, we should remember the history of Emma Lazarus’s poem and recognize its symbolic power. While this administration is attempting to erase its meaning, the words are indelible.
Lazarus was born into a life of privilege and comfort in New York City in 1849 and, beginning in her teens, won acclaim for her verse. But she had good reason to fight oppression and champion immigration: her family history. Her great-great-grandfather Isaac Mendes Seixas, born in Lisbon in 1709, had a very different start in life.
In 1497, Portugal had forcibly converted tens of thousands of Jews, not even giving them the option to flee to other lands. In the centuries that followed, Portugal’s Inquisition, seeking to stamp out religious heresy, focused on their descendants. Convinced that they were crypto-Jews — outwardly pious Catholics, but secretly passing on from generation to generation Jewish rituals and beliefs — the Inquisition invited public denunciations, used torture to extract confessions and burned its victims at the stake. When Seixas was in his early teens, his family fled. In London, far from the inquisitors, they reclaimed their Judaism, with his parents remarrying in a synagogue.
Fleeing the Iberian peninsula, many Jews established commercial footholds in seaports around the Atlantic, trading with one another, bound by economic and family ties. When Seixas was in his 20s, he crossed the ocean, eventually making his way to New York. There, in 1740, he married Rachel Levy. Their eight children and their descendants were among New York’s most eminent Jewish families.
Lazarus was born into their world of comfort, servants and tutors. When she was just 17 years old, her father had her first book of poems privately printed. By publishing poetry, a novel and translations in the years that followed, she occasionally turned to her family’s Jewish past.
But she took her activism to the next step in 1882. Aware that new waves of Jewish immigrants were arriving in New York, Lazarus was determined to meet the persecuted Jews of her day, bearing witness to another chapter in the history of the Wandering Jews, her people. They had fled the mayhem of pogroms unleashed in Russia after Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.
Lazarus was inspired by the refugees she met on a windswept island in New York’s East River. The hundreds of Russian Jews fleeing pogroms overwhelmed New York’s immigration reception station at Castle Garden. Vacant buildings on Ward’s Island, where the city buried its poor and locked away people deemed insane, became shelters for the overflow of destitute immigrants.
On a dreary Sunday afternoon in March 1882, a ferry carried Lazarus to meet some of them. It was Purim, a holiday from the biblical book of Esther celebrating ancient Jews’ triumph over a plot to exterminate them.
The women and men Lazarus met there inspired her. She heard in their Purim melodies echoes of the past and promise for the future. The state facility was abject, but the people were joyous both because the holiday commanded it and because they had found a new home in this land that they hoped would welcome the “wretched … refuse of other nations.”
Despite her class difference, Lazarus saw these refugees as eager, intelligent, bright-eyed and determined. Already they were learning English. Some no longer had to live in the state refuge because they had found work. Still, they returned to celebrate the holiday with their compatriots. They had fled a land that oppressed them with brutal laws and mob violence to live in one where they could work and “breathe … the air of freedom.”
Lazarus expected every American to share her pride that this nation was “the home of hope to the whole human race.” Americans were already debating what she called “the general emigration question.” The sober, thrifty and educated people she met wanted only one thing — to work. She challenged her compatriots to do more than just give them passive encouragement. She wanted Americans to undertake “practical means … to promote on a large and generous scale the grand movement for their immigration and colonization.”
A year after her visit to Ward’s Island, Lazarus wrote her famous poem. France had gifted America a monumental statue, “Liberty Enlightening the World.” But Americans had to pay for its pedestal. To raise funds, a grand exhibition and auction were planned. Asked to write a poem for the event, Lazarus demurred, not wishing to write on command. But remembering the Russian Jews whom she visited on Ward’s Island, she wrote “The New Colossus.”
She died only four years later, at the age of 38, most likely from lymphoma. She never saw the bronze plaque with “The New Colossus” affixed inside the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal in 1903.
By that time, the United States was in the midst of an extraordinary wave of migration. When Lazarus met the refugees on Ward’s Island, the country’s population was 50 million. But by 1924, when restrictionists slammed shut America’s gates, more than 25 million immigrants, almost all from Europe, had made their way to the United States, many of them welcomed to these shores by the lamp lofted by the “Mother of Exiles,” the name Lazarus had given the Statue of Liberty.
While the portrayal of America as a nation of immigrants has always been a conditional, incomplete story, Lazarus knew that it was true for her family, true for the destitute Russian-Jewish immigrants housed on Ward’s Island, and should be true for others fleeing poverty, lack of opportunity and persecution. The “Mother of Exiles” in New York harbor remains a potent symbol of promise.
The Trump administration has implemented dramatic policy changes targeting asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants who might need temporary support — food stamps, housing vouchers or Medicaid — to thrive in America. These attacks most directly harm migrants themselves, but they also undermine a fundamental principle of the country. The refugees who inspired Lazarus’s poem, who brought skills and energy that ultimately benefited the country, might have been excluded had they had to cross an alligator-filled moat or evade soldiers’ bullets to arrive on America’s shores. Had this violent stance been the official policy in the 19th century, millions of Americans would not be here today. Welcoming the “huddled masses” has made the country what and who it is.