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Opinion: How the Statue of Liberty became a symbol for a national myth

The transformation of the meaning of the Statue of Liberty illustrates how Americans often misremember our history. The original purpose of the statue was to commemorate the end of slavery and the country’s centennial. It had nothing to do with immigration.

Similarly, the United States was never a country that allowed completely open immigration, particularly for non-White immigrants. The history of US immigration policy is one of ever-expanding restrictions and deportations of the poor and huddled masses, from Chinese Exclusion through the rapid removal of over 10,000 Haitians last month.

Even before the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886, the United States had begun to close the door on non-White and poor immigrants. The country did not have any federal immigration restrictions until 1875, but many states set up their own limits. Massachusetts and New York implemented limits on poor and sick immigrants, Southern states banned the entry of free Blacks at their ports, and California set limits on the entry of the Chinese after the Gold Rush. The Supreme Court invalidated these state-level immigration laws in 1849 and again in 1875.
That same year, Congress passed the Page Act, the country’s first national immigration restriction on Chinese laborers and women. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned the entry of all Chinese immigrants. Sen. John Miller of California said on the Senate floor, “Of Chinese, we have enough and would be glad to exchange those we have for any White people under the sun.” In 1882, Congress also passed a separate immigration act that banned “convicts, idiots, lunatics, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.”
The idea for the Statue of Liberty originated from a conversation between slavery abolitionist Édouard René de Laboulaye and the sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi in 1865. Bartholdi designed the copper statue and entitled it Liberty Enlightening the World. The metal frame was made by Gustave Eiffel, whose tower at the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris would cement his name into the identity of the city. Liberty Enlightening the World depicts the Roman goddess of liberty, libertas, who holds a tablet with July 4, 1776, written in Roman numerals. At her feet lay a broken shackle and chains to symbolize the end of slavery.
Delays in fabrication meant that only the torch was ready for display during the centennial celebrations in 1876. The statue was finally installed a decade later on Bedloe’s Island, an abandoned Army base off the coast of New Jersey. US President Grover Cleveland presided over the ceremony on October 28, 1886, saying that a “stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man’s oppression until Liberty enlightens the world.” There was no mention of immigration.
The famous lines from Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus were added to the Statue of Liberty in 1903. Lazarus, an advocate for Jewish refugees from pogroms in Europe, had written the poem in 1883 as part of the fundraising drive to complete the base of the statue, but it had largely been forgotten. The poem reads in part, “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Lazarus died of cancer in 1887, at only 38, and her obituaries did not mention what would become her most famous poem.
What the Statue of Liberty says -- and doesn't
In the early 1900s, Lazarus’ friend Georgina Schuyler noted that even though the original purpose of the statue was to symbolize freedom, its proximity to Ellis Island had transformed it into a symbol of welcome to the immigrants arriving there, just as Lazarus had originally interpreted it. In 1901, Schuyler began an effort to honor her friend by adding the poem to the monument. In 1903, a small plaque was added inside the base with the words of the Lazarus’ poem, renaming Lady Liberty “the mother of exiles.”
At the same time that the Statue of Liberty was reimagined as a symbol of the immigrant heritage of the United States, the country was slamming the door on more immigrants. Teddy Roosevelt, the President of the United States when the Lazarus poem was added to the statue, described open immigration to the country as “race suicide.” Roosevelt limited Japanese immigrants in the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement. In 1917, all Asian immigration was banned and, in 1924, the national origins quotas slashed immigration from everywhere except northern Europe.
The result was far fewer people arriving at Ellis Island under the watchful gaze of the Statue of Liberty. After air travel replaced ships as the primary mode of transatlantic travel, Ellis Island was closed in 1954.
Even as immigration to the US declined, the idea that the country was a nation of immigrants was ascendant. John F. Kennedy titled his second book “A Nation of Immigrants” and the phrase became a common shorthand for the history of the country. The reimagining of the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of immigration accelerated.
The real immigration crisis is not at the border
In 1956, Bedloe’s Island was renamed Liberty Island. On May 11, 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed a proclamation making Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. The proclamation read, “The Statue of Liberty is a symbol to the world of the dreams and aspirations which have drawn so many millions of immigrants to America.”
When Johnson later that year signed the Hart-Celler immigration act, which ended the racial entry quotas from 1924 but replaced them with new limits, particularly on Mexican immigration, he chose to do so on Liberty Island at the base of the Statue of Liberty. An immigration museum was installed inside the Statue of Liberty in 1972 and remained in operation until 1991 when it was replaced by the larger immigration museum on Ellis Island.
Although the 1965 revision to the Immigration and Nationality Act removed the eugenics-derived national origins quotas and allowed more immigration to the United States, the rate of immigration as a share of the total population never again reached the levels of the 19th century.

Even though it was not how it was originally conceived, the Statue of Liberty has become the preeminent symbol of the immigrant origins of the United States. However, the idea that America was a nation of immigrants that provided a refuge for the poor and huddled masses was not true when Emma Lazarus’ poem was added to the Statue of Liberty in 1903. As the harsh immigration policies of the Trump administration and the rapid removal of poor Haitian asylum-seekers by the Biden administration demonstrate, it is still not true today.

As we reflect on the Statue of Liberty’s 135th anniversary, perhaps we can finally begin to live up to Lazarus’s inspirational words. The need for America to be a nation of immigrants that is a welcoming beacon of liberty in a violent and warming world is more urgent than ever.

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