“The New Colossus” Got It Right: Immigration Makes America

Look around your classroom, office, or even the local playground, and you will find people with various heritages. Each of them has a story of how their family came to America. To that end, immigrants are the foundations of our communities and should be respected as having critical roles in society. With potential changes to United States immigration policies, people need to remember America’s historic relationship with immigrants. Emma Lazarus, a prominent defender of immigration, read her poem, “The New Colossus” in 1883 for a Statue of Liberty fundraiser (Taubenfield). “The New Colossus” is a Petrarchan sonnet, with an octave about the physical features of the statue, followed by a sestet in which the statue is personified to verbally welcome people to America. 16 years after the Statue of Liberty was erected, the poem was placed on its base (Taubenfield). Since then, “The New Colossus” and the Statue of Liberty have become famous pro-immigration symbols.


Emma Lazarus

Emma Lazarus

In the 19th century, Lazarus wrote her poem while surrounded by news of Russian pogroms that were targeting Jews (Taubenfield). Furthermore, nativists were advocating for immigration restrictions such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbid the entrance of Chinese people who could not demonstrate an advanced skill set (“Chinese”). Today, “The New Colossus” is understood as a poem that welcomes immigrants because it depicts America as a place of security. Modern-day changes to immigration policies have caused many Americans to reference the Statue of Liberty and “The New Colossus” as historic pieces of American identity that require us to support immigration. One of President Donald Trump’s changes to immigration policies include ending Honduran migrants temporary protected statuses. Temporary protected statuses grant temporary residence to people from other countries during times of crisis. These migrants, any of whom came to America in the 1990s, built new lives and have few, if any, remaining connections in Honduras. Now, they are being forced to leave America (Jordan). Another tense immigration policy is the Deferred

Defending DACA

Defending DACA

Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA is a program that protects children who came here illegally but grew up to regard America as home. Currently, DACA is still in effect, but there are heated debates over its constitutionality. Additionally, in an attempt to prevent future immigrants from entering the country illegally, Trump’s changes will increase restrictions along the southern U.S. border (Sorkin).



As America moves forward creating, challenging or supporting immigration policies, it is important to distinguish that, originally, the Statue of Liberty was built to praise the American political system, a system that represents the opinions of all.”The New Colossus” and Statue

Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty

of Liberty are constant reminders that America has a reputation as a place to which immigrants can come for better lives, citizenship, and representation. Through the poem, the statue is depicted as a maternal figure who cares for immigrants. This has, therefore, historically depicted America as a place of refuge. America’s policies should continue to reflect that continuously welcoming nature towards immigrants. To that extent, it is important to understand that the meaning of Lazarus’s poem fits in with the mission of America, a place people can come to for new starts and equal opportunities.




In the first octave of her poem, Lazarus describes the statue’s welcoming, motherly nature. She writes, “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name / Mother of Exiles” (Lazarus 4-6). By using a metaphor to compare the statue to a mother, Lazarus arouses notions of support, unconditional love, and strength. The statue’s love and strength are directed towards immigrants. Furthermore, the term “exiles” illustrates that the immigrants are unwanted in their homeplace. Perhaps they have different religious beliefs or customs which make them feel “homeless” in their native country (Lazarus 13). The immigrants are “tired…poor…huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” so they have left behind their old lives to seek asylum in the US (Lazarus 10-11). Additionally, the term “Mother of Exiles” is capitalized. By making it a proper noun, Lazarus gives the statue an official authoritative role. This role makes her—and the America she represents—responsible for immigrants.


The Guardian’s 2017 project, “Huddled Masses? Losers? Trump v the Statue of Liberty,” features Rita Dove’s modern-day interpretation of “The New Colossus.” Writing from Lazarus’s point-of-view, Dove’s poem, entitled “Lady Freedom Among Us,” describes Lady Liberty. It says she “[fit] her hair under a hand-me-down cap / and spruced it up with feathers and stars” (Dove 12-13). By comparing Lady Liberty’s crown to a “hand-me-down cap” under which she tucks her hair so that it is not in the way, Dove suggests that the Statue of Liberty is hardworking and ambitious. Furthermore, this connects with the stereotypical “American Dream,” in which an immigrant can come to America and work hard to produce a better, more“spruced” up life.


Therefore, Dove believes that the modern-day Statue of Liberty—whose picture arouses American pride—has been glamorized without consideration for her true meaning. Dove suggests that the statue has become a form of propaganda, from which the population recognizes her crown without noticing the hard work that helped her achieve it. People do not consider the “hand-me-down cap” that it once was when it welcomed boatloads of people to Ellis Island. The statue must be revalued as a constant reminder that America cannot become complacent with how many people have already immigrated. Rather, America must work to

Statue of Liberty's Crown

Statue of Liberty’s Crown

preserve its reputation as a place where people can come, work hard for better lives, and “spruce up” their “hand-me-down caps.” In order for America to preserve this reputation, however, it is imperative that the country creates policies that advance immigration.




In the present tense, Lazarus writes that the statue’s name is “Mother of Exiles.” Her protective instinct towards immigrants is not something of the past but is an unchanging characteristic. Therefore, Americans need to think critically about how our modern society treats immigrants. The statue cannot be a “Mother of Exiles” who died and is no longer relevant, but must still be “Mother of Exiles,” in every present action we take. We must work to ensure that immigrants still feel welcomed. By ending the temporary protected statuses among immigrants, America does not make them feel welcomed but insinuates that they are irrelevant. Furthermore, considering that many people immigrate to the U.S. because they are “yearning to breathe free” and live in a democratic society, it appears that the Statue of Liberty should be a direct statement of hospitality. The “exiles” Lazarus refers to in her poem need to be welcomed in modern America. Acting as their “Mother,” the statue cannot be taken out of context and considered a simple, historic piece of propaganda. She is a call to action, a reminder that America’s glory is that it has and will continue to be a place where people can come with dreams of better lives.


Charles Taylor’s Multiculturalism

Charles Taylor’s Multiculturalism

In order to create a society in which all people are respected, and where immigrants are considered insiders, our country must adopt multicultural policies of universalism and difference, as described in Charles Taylor’s Multiculturalism essay, “The Politics of Recognition” (1994). Taylor describes multiculturalism as a balance between the politics of universalism, which is “the equalization of rights and entitlements,” and the politics of difference, that “everyone should be recognized for his or her unique identity” (37-38). In order for immigrants to be fully welcomed into American society, they must have the same “rights and entitlements” as other citizens. This means that they, like everyone, must follow laws. Nevertheless, America’s current immigration policies do not acknowledge immigrants’ “unique identit[ies],” and must, therefore, be changed. For instance, if people are “tempest-tossed” and striving to find a safer, more democratic society, America has a moral imperative to prioritize their immigration status. Otherwise, these immigrants will be left “homeless” and in danger as they await the belated results of their applications (Lazarus 13).


Roberto Suro’s 2009 New York Times article, “The Statue of Liberty’s Real Stand” attempts to differentiate Lazarus’s poem from the original meaning of the Statue of Liberty. To Suro, the statue was erected to represent “U.S. political values as a force for the betterment of humanity” (Suro). Suro goes on to argue that had the statue been erected anywhere other than Ellis Island, “no one would associate it with immigration.” From Suro’s point-of-view, the statue does not represent a “mighty woman with a torch” defending immigrants as she would her children (Lazarus 4). Rather, Suro argues that the statue is exclusively a pro-democracy piece of propaganda that does not dabble in the realm of immigration.


However, analyzing the statue within the framework of the political system, readers must consider democracy’s perspective on immigration. America’s democracy was founded by people who came to seek independence from England. They formed a government specifically to voice the opinions of those who had been marginalized. America must not shut its doors on modern-day immigrants seeking that same liberty and representation. Even in the 19th century when Lazarus wrote the poem, she was advocating for the Chinese who were coming to America to work on the transcontinental railroad and the Jewish refugees who were seeking religious freedom (Taubenfield). Near the end of “The New Colossus,” the statue is personified to criticize Europe. She states, “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” (Lazarus 9). Criticizing the “ancient lands” of Europe, Lazarus specifically highlights that America was established to have a unique form of government. America’s democracy was meant to voice the opinions of the unrepresented. Thus, Lazarus simultaneously praises America’s government and reveals that, because immigrants are often seeking better representation and “world-wide welcome,” the government’s mission includes fixing immigration policies to be more welcoming (Lazarus 7).


Immigration Protest

Immigration Protest

Additionally, Aviva Taubenfield’s journal article, “The Real American Has Not Yet Arrived,” from A New Literary History of America (2009), agrees that the statue applauds America’s democracy, while it simultaneously advances immigration. Taubenfield highlights that America’s democracy was created to represent the country’s “popular will,” which includes the wills of citizens who are marginalized. To that end, future immigration policies should respect the roles of citizens who immigrated in the past and look with ambition towards future immigrants (who are potential citizens). Taubenfield goes on to describe how Lazarus’s poem sheds a positive light on immigration:

Yearning freedom seekers and wretched refuse; homeless, tempest-tossed and exiles—the contradictory perceptions and experiences of the émigrés captured in Lazarus’s poem reveal the persistent complexities of immigration, Americanization, and national and self-definition, preserving them in bronze, literally just below the surface of Lady Liberty. (Taubenfield)

To Taubenfield, immigrants and America’s identity are just as important as the Statue of Liberty, all of which are put together and “preserved… in bronze.” Uniting the immigrants, national identity and statue itself “just below the surface of Lady Liberty,” Taubenfield reveals that America can only be satisfied when it creates a culture that continuously recognizes the value of immigration.


In conclusion, “The New Colossus” suggests that American multiculturalism should be a unique model that balances equal respect for all people, with respect for their individual heritages. This is by no means easy because top-down governmental policies struggle to appropriately deal with individual peoples and their situations. Nevertheless, the government must bear in mind that, while it may need to revise immigration policies, America must always be a country for immigrants. Ali Rattansi analyzes multiculturalism and how different countries attempt to bridge the gap between peoples of different cultures. In his book, Multiculturalism: A Very Short Introduction (2011), Rattansi challenges nativist ideas, stating, “immigrants… have too often been blamed for the overall national cultural fragmentation and changes to

Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty

national identity and the inner urban unemployment” (144). Regardless of the policies America enacts as it moves forward, lawmakers and citizens must take heed not to blame problems on immigrants, but to see immigration as a crucial part of America’s history and reputation. Lazarus had it right when she said America should be a country for the “tired… poor… huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (Lazarus 10-11). We must always remain a country of immigrants, for immigrants.




Works Cited

“Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882.” Teaching with Documents: Using Primary Sources From the National Archives, Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989, pp. 82-85. https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/. Accessed 2 May 2018.

Dove, Rita. “Lady Freedom Among US.” Guardian. “Huddled Masses? Losers? Trump v the Statue of Liberty,” https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2017/aug/10/the-new-colossus-emma-lazarus-poems-donald-trump-immigration#top. Accessed 4 May 2018.

Jordan, Miriam. “Trump Administration Ends Protected Status for Thousands of Hondurans.” New York Times, 4 May 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/04/us/honduras-temporary-protected-status.html. Accessed 7 May 2018.

Lazarus, Emma. “The New Colossus.” National Park Service, Department of the Interior, 2 November 1883, https://www.nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/colossus.htm. Accessed 3 May 2018.

Rattansi, Ali. Multiculturalism: A Very Short Introduction. New York, Oxford UP, 2011.

Sorkin, Amy Davidson. “Does Donald Trump Understand What DACA Means?” New Yorker, 7 May 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/05/14/does-donald-trump-understand-what-daca-means. Accessed 7 May 2018.

Suro, Roberto. “The Statue of Liberty’s Real Stand.” The New York Times, 5 July 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/02/AR2009070201737.html. Accessed 14 April 2018.

Taubenfeld, Aviva. “The Real American Has Not Yet Arrived.” A New Literary History of America, Greil Marcus, and Werner Sollors, Harvard U P, 1st edition, 2009. Credo Reference, http://envoy.dickinson.edu:2048/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/harvardhoa/1903_may_5_emma_lazarus_s_new_colossus_is_affixed_to_the_statue_of_liberty/0?institutionId=2613. Accessed 22 Apr. 2018.

Taylor, Charles. “The Politics of Recognition.” Multiculturalism, edited by Amy Gutmann, Princeton UP, 1994, pp. 25-73.


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