Thistlethwaite: Give me your tired, your poor |

Thistlethwaite: Give me your tired, your poor

Susan Thistlethwaite
Valley Voices

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting Citizenship and Immigration Services director for the Trump administration, wants to edit the poem on the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” Cuccinelli said recently.

Nope. Not even close. The poem on the Statue of Liberty says “poor.” No revisionism can change that. In fact, it is morally repugnant to try.

I don’t think Cuccinelli and others in this administration actually get what the United States is about. The United States is a promise to the world that human beings deserve to live decently and with respect. That promise is often unfulfilled, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in his “I Have a Dream” speech, but it is there in our important historical markers such as the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and yes, the Statue of Liberty and the poem on it. These often form the basis of movements that have called for greater equality and justice.

These symbols and documents, as they have been taught and repeated for so long, have forged the moral compass of this nation. Tragically, I believe Mr. Cucinelli and others in this administration like him, are taking aim at that moral compass and trying to have it point away from the best of this country has to offer, both to itself and to the world.

The Statue of Liberty and the poem on it are key parts of that moral compass in my view and very important in my own family.

My grandmother and her two siblings were starving teenagers when they sailed past the Statue of Liberty in the early 20th century.

Their parents had sent them alone to work in the sweatshops of New York City because they could no longer feed them.

Sound familiar? That’s the story of many of those who are trying to immigrate to the U.S. today. They can be poor, they are sometimes starving, and some are in fear for their lives.

The poem on the Statue of Liberty is addressed to my ancestors and to these newer immigrants.

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!

Those are best known of the words from the poem written by Emma Lazarus in 1883, “The New Colossus,” that is inscribed on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty.

No qualifications. No asterisk with the words “except we don’t really want you if you are actually poor.”

The interview Cuccinelli gave followed the recent announcement of a rule, set to go into effect in mid-October, that would make it more difficult for low-income, legal immigrants who receive public assistance to remain in the country. In addition, the rule could also prevent legal immigrants who have received a certain amount of public assistance from ever becoming citizens.

“We invite people to come here and join us as a privilege,” Cuccinelli said in that interview. “Not everyone has the right to be an American.” Only those who can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” are welcome.

Again. Not even close to the meaning of the Statue of Liberty for this nation; one could argue it is the reverse, and I think intentionally so. This is the worst of this kind of revisionist history. It seeks to trash the very best we strive to be in order to secure a different America, one created in the image of the wealthy and powerful.

In the full text of the poem, Emma Lazarus contrasted the “mighty woman with a torch” to the “brazen giant of Greek fame.” She called the statue the “Mother of Exiles.” Those words come before the oft-quoted ones, and they further illuminate their meaning.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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!”

I can imagine the “mighty woman with a torch” with “imprisoned lightning,” the “Mother of Exiles,” being incensed at this deliberate effort to deny what this nation is about, what she has stood for in more than a century of welcoming immigrants who are tired, who are poor, who are homeless and who must huddle from the storms of life.

What do they want? Not a handout. They want to “breathe free.”

That’s the worst of this revisionism. The promise of America is to “breathe free.” That’s what people want. And if you need some help to get on your feet when you come here, we give you that because we are a decent society. If we lose sight of that, truly we are no longer the United States of America.

We cannot let this effort to destroy the national moral compass succeed. If it does, we will descend further into chaos, both civic and moral.

Let’s not let that happen. If you agree with me, write to Mr. Cuccinelli and say, “No, you are wrong,” and give your reasons why.

I have.

Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is President and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.

Support Local Journalism