I bet you’ve never heard of Emma Lazarus, but you probably would recognize part of a poem she wrote.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” It is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor.
She wrote it as part of a fundraising effort to finance the foundation, or pedestal, upon which the Statue of Liberty would stand — back before the 20th century. And now it seems, for over a 100 years, we were all misinterpreting Ms. Lazarus’s poem.
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, corrected our misreading during an interview on NPR and a later one the same day on CNN. On NPR, Cucinnelli was asked if the words are part of the American ethos.
“They certainly are,” Cucinnelli responded. “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
See, for all these years I’d overlooked that last part — as apparently did Ms. Lazarus, because those words don’t appear in her poem.
I guess I’ll also have to review my understanding of Woody Guthrie’s folk classic, “This Land is Your Land.” By Cuccinelli’s reckoning, the song wouldn’t have even applied to its author who often lived off the kindness of others, received public assistance, assisted union organizers and rode the rails during the depression years.
Our country is unique in so many ways: it is not defined by geography or tribe or by hundreds of years of ethnic culture. It began with the quite radical idea the people could govern themselves.
It also offered refuge to those fleeing religious persecution and other forms of oppression. I know we didn’t always live up to those ideals. We committed ethnic genocide, wiping out the Native Americans. We enslaved 400 million black people. We interred American citizens of Japanese heritage and enacted Jim Crow laws.
I also realize we are no longer a small population with control of a continental-sized geography which will require immigrants to grow and succeed at a rate sufficient to making the United States a world player. We live in the age of terrorism and our government budgets strain to meet our basic obligations. But those aren’t reasons enough to forget who we are, or not celebrate our different cultures and traditions.
We have in the past celebrated that ethnic diversity at times. The Irish were viewed as poor and criminal, but today are celebrated with St. Patrick’s Day, many parades, stories of old (and powerful) Irish political machines in larger cities — there are protestant, non-Irish who root for Old Notre Dame. It was much the same with Italians and Germans who immigrated here.
But Cucinnelli, Donald Trump and Trump advisor Stephen Miller have publicly stated they prefer fair-haired, fair-skinned immigrants from places like Norway over those from countries whose people are darker-skinned. They’re quite willing to separate small children from their parents in order to achieve their goals.
I don’t know if it’s working. I do know it is not making America great again. In fact, it is doing the opposite, showing our worst instincts and petty behavior. And the plain truth of the matter is that unless you are of Native American descent, you are either an immigrant of the descendant of immigrants who were told to come here and build a better life, to give America “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
Yes, the Irish and Italians were mistreated when they immigrated here in waves. Yes, some of the men who conceived this nation owned slaves. But times have changed; the world has changed and most of all, we have changed. Let us not go back.
Ronnie Ellis is the former statehouse reporter for CNHI Kentucky and writes a weekly column. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.