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 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.