During today’s White House press briefing, President Donald Trump announced his support for the RAISE Act, a new bill to establish what he calls a “merit-based system” for immigration. RAISE prioritizes English-speaking applicants who can “financially support themselves” and will also prohibit legal green card holders from receiving welfare. The bill could result in a 50% reduction in legal immigration each year. Furthermore, family ties are no longer enough to justify immigration.
At the briefing, CNN’s Jim Acosta questioned senior White House advisor Stephen Miller whether the act was truly in alignment with American values. Acosta quoted Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus,” that appears at the base of the Statue of Liberty. “The Statue of Liberty says: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,’” he quoted. “It doesn’t say anything about speaking English or being able to be a computer programmer.”
Miller, expressionless as Sam the Eagle, rebutted: “The poem that you’re referring to was added later. It’s not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.” He brought up other instances of mandated immigration limits in the US, demanding, “In 1970, when we let in 300,000 people a year, is that violating or not violating the Statue of Liberty law of the land?”
The New York-based Lazarus, a Sephardic-Ashkenazi Jew, was a gifted poet, receiving accolades from the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She was also passionate about immigrant rights. Following the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881, the anti-Semitism in Russia and what’s now Ukraine became violent. Volunteering at an immigration center, Lazarus felt deeply empathetic for the plight of immigrants, particularly Russian Jews, who would eventually live in disease-ridden tenements and face the anti-Semitism she, despite being wealthy and educated, endured herself.
It’s true that the Statue of Liberty, designed by sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, was a symbol of friendship between France and the US during the American Revolution. Because the US would have to finance the statue’s base, a fundraiser was held, and Lazarus was asked to contribute a work. She balked until chairwoman Constance Cary Harrison wrote to her, “Think of the goddess of liberty … holding the torch out to those refugees you are so fond of visiting at Ward’s Island.”
Lazarus’s poem sold for $1,500, and the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York Harbor on June 17, 1885. After Lazarus’s death from an illness in 1887, Georgina Schuyler, one of her dear friends, lobbied to have “The New Colossus” engraved on a plaque and placed on the statue’s base. In 1903, it was. (Ironically, it is probably the only part of the statue created by an English-speaking American.)
Divorcing the statue and poem from each other is a juvenile and circular argument — a kind of argument we’ve seen play out many times in the Trump administration, including for the RAISE Act itself. That it’s a “merit-based” system seems to imply both the English language and the ability to support oneself financially are aligned with some kind of integrity — as if it’s not part of the American mythos that many hard-working Americans are, in fact, not American.
But mythos, poetry, and the realities they reveal are of no use to this administration. This exchange recalls Masha Gessen’s New York Review of Books article, “The Styrofoam Presidency,” where she asserts Trump’s presidency as colorless, hopeless, and entirely devoid of poetic appeal. A kakistocracy, emboldened with blameless impunity for its falsehoods, eclipses even the smallest shreds of hope, and it does it even better, more seamlessly, when it’s ugly.