Former Washington Post reporter and former Director for the Pew Hispanic Center Roberto Suro wrote a column for his old paper this weekend that challenges the notion that the Statue of Liberty is a symbol for immigration. For years, the Statue has been associated with nearby Ellis Island, which is known for its role in processing immigrants, and year-after-year, the Statue hosts citizenship ceremonies. But Suro writes the Statue's meaning has gotten "muddled over the years."
Suro began his argument by calling for the removal of a plaque at the Statue of Liberty displaying a famous poem.
I'd like to suggest a little surgery that will make the symbol more appropriate today: Let's get rid of The Poem.
I'm talking about "Give me your tired, your poor . . . " -- that poem, "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, which sometimes seems to define us as a nation even more than Lady Liberty herself.
Inscribed on a small brass plaque mounted inside the statue's stone base, the poem is an appendix ... the schmaltzy sonnet offers a dangerously distorted picture of the relationship between newcomers and their new land.
The most enduring meaning conveyed by Lady Liberty has nothing do with immigration...
Suro contends that the Statue of Liberty is about representing America's political ideals and had it been placed in another city, it would hold that meaning. But because of its location in New York Harbor, it has drawn the misleading link to immigration.
In Lazarus's vision, the statue would be called "Mother of Exiles," and it would stand by "the golden door" welcoming "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." That is a distinctly political perspective on immigration: the United States as a refuge for the oppressed. The truth is that our political values do not explain who comes here or why.
Economic imperatives, much more than political aspirations, have always driven immigration to the United States. Planters, merchants, servants and slaves vastly outnumbered Pilgrims and Puritans.
Suro ends his article by writing that idealistic images, such as the connection between the Statue of Liberty and immigration, shouldn't dictate public policy.
Look back with caution is my advice. Bad poetry makes for bad policy. Whether you believe that current immigration flows are too big, too small or just right, a mystical attachment to the "Mother of Exiles" can lead to treacherous misconceptions....
... Like Americans of every era, we'll be held to account for how we manage the door and for what happens to immigrants and their offspring when they live among us.
To read Roberto Suro's column in its entirety, see the Washington Post.
Updated: Tue, Jul 7th 2009 @ 9:49am EDT