Opinion

What Stephen Miller Got Right - and Very Wrong - About the Statue of Liberty

Miller was technically right to say the calls to give us 'your tired, your poor, your huddled masses' was not on the original statue, but it's the American people's loss

Stephen Miller, White House senior adviser for policy, takes a question during a White House press briefing in Washington, August 2, 2017.
Zach Gibson/Bloomberg

White House policy advisor Stephen Miller got into a pissing match Wednesday with a CNN reporter about the dating of the poem, "The New Colossus," from The Statue of Liberty. Miller won the point, but it's the American people who are losing the match.

When I was in elementary school, we used to sing "Give me your tired, your poor" in music class. Although it was only years later that I read the full poem, even as a 10-year old I knew that the words "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" were written by Emma Lazarus, and appeared in New York Harbor, the symbolic gateway to America.

Was 'The New Colossus' a late addition to the Statue of Liberty? David B. Green responds

Lazarus, daughter of a well-off New York sugar merchant of Portuguese-Jewish descent, wrote the poem in 1882, the year after the start of the pogroms in czarist Russia. That was the beginning of three decades of mass emigration of Jews from Russia: By the start of World War I, in 1914, some two million of them had come to the United States, transforming its economy and its culture.

Lazarus was active in a number of voluntary efforts to assist the new Jewish immigrants in their successful absorption into American life. And when, in 1882, she wrote "The New Colossus," which goes on to declare America's readiness to accept "The wretched refuse, the homeless, tempest-tost," it was her contribution to a fundraising drive to finance the construction of a base to hold the gift pledged by the people of France to the United States on its centennial, in 1876.

So it was disturbing, on several different levels, to hear Stephen Miller claim that the Lazarus poem “is not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.” The presidential aide was responding to Jim Acosta's suggestion that the new immigration policy announced by Miller – which would give preference to aliens with desirable professional skills and cut the percentage of migrant visas awarded to family members of people already in the country – might stand in contradiction to the spirit of "The New Colossus," which emphasizes America's role as a refuge for the downtrodden.  

True, "The New Colossus" was added to Lady Liberty only in 1903, 17 years after its dedication, and 19 years after Lazarus's death – but the poem was written for her. Its opening words are: "A mighty woman with a torch  her name/ Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand/ Glows world-wide welcome.”

FILE- In this circa 1950 photo shows a bronze plaque of the poem by Poet Emma Lazurus on Statue of Liberty in New York. In 1903, the poem was engraved on the bronze plaque and mounted inside the pedestal's lower level. Senior White House aide Stephen Miller told reporters Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, that the poem written by Emma Lazarus about the "huddled masses" is not part of the original Statue of Liberty. Miller says the Statue of Liberty is a "symbol of American liberty lighting the world" and suggested the statue had little to do with immigrants. (AP Photo/File)
/AP

So while Miller was technically correct, when he went on to suggest that, "the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of liberty and lighting the world" – rather than a beacon welcoming needy people from other places to the United States, he was way off base. He couched his announcement about new immigration standards in language about fighting income inequality, but his extemporaneous remarks betray the real attitude of both Miller and the administration he represents: a closing of the door, not only on entry to America, but to access for those already in the country to all the things that the United States has symbolized to both its citizens and those outside it, for at least a century.

America, it's true, has always been more eloquent in its talk about freedom and equal opportunity than it has been in realizing those ideals, but the rhetoric has great value too. Today, the ideals have been thrown overboard into the harbor, and all that counts for in Trump and Miller's America is money and brute force.