Poet's biographer: Statue of Liberty poem embraces migrants from 'all places'

A biographer of Emma Lazarus, the poet who penned the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, criticized acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli for saying the poem was referring to “people coming from Europe."

Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus” in 1883 and the words became a rallying cry for supporters of immigration in the 1930s.

The famous poem read: "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!”

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Biographer Esther Schor, author of “Emma Lazarus,” said that the poet's words were meant to encourage Americans “to embrace the poor and destitute of all places and origins," The Associated Press reported.

The native New Yorker of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish descent penned the sonnet for an auction raising funds for Lady Liberty’s pedestal and her words are enshrined on a plaque.

Schor, in an op-ed for The New York Times, noted that Lazarus was well-known for her work with Eastern European Jewish refugees, addressing racism and anti-Semitism. 

"Ms. Lazarus, a wealthy fourth-generation American, devoted herself to settling these immigrants in New York," Schor wrote. 

Cuccinelli on Tuesday faced backlash when he tweaked the inscription on the statue to defend a new policy rolled out by the Trump administration that expands its ability to reject green cards based on an immigrant's use of public assistance.

"Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge," he said Tuesday morning while responding to a question if Lazarus’s poem was part of the American ethos. 

Cuccinelli defended his rewording of the poem by suggesting that Lazarus’s words were referring to “people coming from Europe."

“Well of course that poem referred back to people coming from Europe where they had class-based societies,” Cuccinelli said of the inscription on the statue during an appearance on CNN later Tuesday. “Where people were considered wretched if they weren't in the right class.”

“And it was introduced — it was written one year — one year after the first federal public charge rule was written that says — and I'll quote it, 'Any person unable to take care of himself without becoming a public charge,’ would be inadmissible or in the terms that my agency deals with, they can't do what's called adjusting status, getting a green card becoming legal permanent residence,” he continued.

The AP noted that the original poem itself states of the statue: “From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome.” 

Schor criticized the Trump administration's policy but said Lazarus's words still ring true today. 

"With every new statute, restriction and act designed to thwart immigration to this country, Ms. Lazarus’s words leap into view," Schor wrote for the Times. "Thanks to Emma Lazarus, the Statue of Liberty can stand on her own two feet, and we — Americans and aspiring Americans alike — are her public charge."