An enduring icon of the American immigration experience is the Statute of Liberty, the towering figure who, in our collective imagination, welcomed and embraced the arriving immigrant. “I do think that there are tears in the eyes of the statue at the moment,” former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, herself an immigrant, said in reaction to President Trump's executive order well before Thursday's appeals court ruling put it on hold. Albright’s sadness highlights the disconnect between the promise that the statue represents and the new administration's efforts to have her turn her back on refugees and immigrants, singling out Muslims.
Viewed sentimentally, the statue—along with the moving poem by Emma Lazarus welcoming the “huddled masses yearning to breath free”—suggests enduring sympathy for the “tempest-tossed” immigrant seeking sanctuary in a land of opportunity. But during the peak years of immigration to the U.S.—from the late 19th century through the mid-1920s—Americans also viewed immigrants as “wretched refused.” Although largely lost to our collective memory, the statue, as the historian John Higham originally noted, was not intended to welcome to the “huddled masses.” Rather, this “New Colossus” represented a stern warning about the power of the state at a moment of profound social change.
As we make our choices about what the Statue of Liberty will symbolize in the 21st century, we should remember that our worst fears about immigrants—as carriers of deadly diseases, inferior genes, or dangerous ideas—have never been realized. In sharp contrast, our hopes about the potential of immigrants to advance the nation economically and politically have been proven many times over.
Amy L. Fairchild, a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Texas A&M University's School of Public Health, studies immigrant health inspections, disease control, and other issues in public health.