Justice  /  Debunk

What We Get Wrong About the “Poor Huddled Masses”

We can’t fix our immigration policy without understanding its history.
Pascual De Ruvo/Wikimedia Commons

In defending the U.S. as a place of refuge for the unprotected, many posts have included excerpts from Emma Lazarus’s famous 1883 sonnet, “The New Colossus.” Lazarus’s words, now emblazoned on the base of the Statute of Liberty, read in part:


“…Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Lazarus’s poem was itself an act of defiance against anti-immigrant policies. She drafted it at a time during which both U.S. immigration policy and foreign policy were flagrantly antagonistic to ideals like freedom, liberty, sovereignty and sanctuary. In fact, Lazarus’s poem emerged at a moment when these two intertwined sets of policies welded concepts like race and national origin to notions of displacement, migration and freedom. Lazarus recognized what those who quote her poem today see: allowing racism to shape migration policy fatally short-circuits freedom of movement and political autonomy — two hallmarks of open societies.

But using Lazarus’s sonnet to challenge current U.S. migration and asylum policy obscures the fact that racism has warped immigration policy since Lazarus’s time. Trump’s xenophobic hostility toward migrants and asylum-seekers of color is not an anomaly on an otherwise just and compassionate canvas of U.S immigration history. The truth is that Lazarus’s aspirational words never accurately reflected U.S. immigration policy, even in her own time.

In early 1883, a few close friends approached the 34-year-old Lazarus, a Jewish poet and refugee advocate, with a favor: compose a poem to be auctioned off at the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition in New York. The funds raised from the sale of her work would be used to support the construction of a pedestal to hold the Statue of Liberty, a gift the United States had recently received from France.

Lazarus drafted her remarkable words at what many historians now consider the apogee of 19th century xenophobia and colonialism. Her words exposed a deep chasm between the ideal of providing sanctuary for those “yearning to breathe free” and the suffocating reality of American law at the time.

American immigration and naturalization law had been racialized for close to a century, as the Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted naturalized citizenship to “a free white person who shall have resided … in the United States … for two years.”

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