Who Is Lady Liberty, And What Does She Want?
Brooke Gladstone: In a 7(2) decision last month, the Supreme court ruled that asylum seekers in the United States who've had their claims rejected in informal summary proceedings are out of luck. No contesting the denial, no habeas corpus, return to your countries stat, even if you never got a fair hearing on your claim. Here's ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt who argued the case on behalf of the asylum seekers back in March.
Lee Gelernt: The Supreme court rules for the government. It will be the first time in the history of this country that an immigrant could be forcibly taken and sent back without any federal court ever at any time, looking at the legality of the deportation.
Brooke Gladstone: No matter, as justice Sonia Sotomayer noted in her fiery dissent, whether the denial of asylum claims are quote, "arbitrary or irrational or contrary to governing law," it was yet another blow to the rights of immigrants in the US during, the Trump presidency. Those assaults on the rights of immigrants have been called unconstitutional, reckless, deadly, and the immoral, but are they un-American. Last summer, acting Citizenship and Immigration Services Director, Ken Cuccinelli was asked about that on NPRs Morning Edition.
Rache Martin: Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus has words on the Statue of Liberty give me your tired, your poor, are also part of the American ethos?
Ken Cuccinelli: They certainly are. "Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge," that plaque was put on the Statue of Liberty at almost the same time as the first public charge law was passed, very interesting timing.
Brooke Gladstone: It's not the first time that a member of Trump's team was slapped with that line from the poem, the New Colossus.
Speaker 1: What you're proposing or what the president's proposing here does not sound like it's in keeping with American tradition when it comes to immigration.
Brooke Gladstone: Three years ago, when proposing a policy, favoring English-speaking immigrants, Senior Policy Advisor, Stephen Miller was confronted by CNN's, Jim Acosta.
Jim Acosta: The Statue of Liberty says, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses during the retreat." It doesn't say anything about speaking English.
Stephen Miller: I don't want to get off into a whole thing about history here, but the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of liberty enlightening the world, is a symbol of American liberty lighting the world. The poem that you're referring to was added later is not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.
Paul Kramer: When I told people I was working on the Statue of Liberty, a lot of people just roll their eyes or pretty their shoulders.
Brooke Gladstone: Paul Kramer is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University who's written about the statues, multifarious meanings. You can hear we're on a boat and we're headed for Liberty Island. It's September 11th, the day is hot, the way is clear, and she is magnificent.
Speaker 2: I think it's become so much a part of kitsch and popular culture. We just got pretzls and there are souvenirs of the Statue of Liberty and right foam headgear. We've lost track of how weird the statute is, that there would be this enormous icon on the harbor that people continue to fight and wrestle over it.
Announcer 1: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Miss Liberty.
Brooke Gladstone: It's amazing how close it is. Over there next to it, is-
Paul Kramer: Ellis Island.
Brooke Gladstone: That's Ellis Island.
Paul Kramer: Yes, the sequence that people would come in on the boat, they would see the statue first and then they would stop at Ellis Island and have to get off and be checked. Roughly 2% of immigrants were deported, not allowed to land. There was a lot of fear.
Announcer 2: For many, Liberty enlightening the world, as the statue is officially titled, symbolized the freedom and opportunity that awaited them in their new land.
Paul Kramer: That contrast between hope and terror is a big part of the immigrant narrative.
Announcer 2: Food and gift services are located both aboard this vessel and in the shop near the ferry dock at Liberty Island.
Brooke Gladstone: It really is beautiful.
Paul Kramer: Yes.
Brooke Gladstone: The sinners in her arms, she may not be a warrior, but she is strong. She is indominable. She seems to me to be suppressing her power or holding it back or holding it in reserve.
Paul Kramer: There's a reason why when these contemporary nativists have tried to make these arguments for shutting down refugee programs, closing borders, et cetera, that they feel like they have to take her on. It is a sign of how powerful she is in public life and how powerful she's been made by the waves of people that have given her liberatory emancipatory meanings that they feel like they just have to wrestle with her. She keeps fighting back.
Brooke Gladstone: The statue dedicated in 1886 was pitched by the abolitionist and political thinker, Edouard de Laboulaye as a gift from the French people to celebrate the union's victory in the civil war, the end of slavery in America, and the triumph of democratic and enlightenment ideals.
Paul Kramer: After the civil war, he's able to say, okay, the United States has now perfected itself. It has now gotten slavery out of its system. As a result, he is turning a blind eye to ongoing systems of racial oppression in the United States because they need the United States to be a perfected Republic.
Brooke Gladstone: If built as originally conceived Lady Liberty would have held broken shackles and worn the Phrygian cap of emancipation. Now, the broken chains later feet nearly invisible, and the original message is likewise obscured. The timing was off.
Paul Kramer: There are freedom meanings that are clearly informing the spirit of the statute from the beginning, but they're deliberately modulated. I think part of what is striking, is the ways that successive groups, immigrants, African-Americans, other marginalized groups will, again and again, have to blow on the kindling of those freedom meanings in the statue to bring them to life to animate them. There are crosswinds that are trying to blow those out. It's not a given that the statue is going to represent a robust meaningful idea of freedom. It's something that has to be renewed and has to be recharged again and again.
Americans have spent a lot of time over the last century Americanizing the statute even to the point where it becomes, by some measures, the most easily identifiable symbol of the nation. There is something persistently alien about the statute, beginning with its origins. Initially, Americans are not certain what to do with it. What does this gift entail? What do the French Republicans want from America?
Brooke Gladstone: A trojan horse in the form of a very tall lady?
Paul Kramer: Yes, there's a lot of questions about that. Then of course the big issue is that Americans have to pony up for the pedestal. It takes longer than the Americans have promised, which is a little bit embarrassing, but eventually, it comes together. Even from the beginning, there's this sense of, "Do we want this thing?"
Brooke Gladstone: Finally, the funds for the base were raised through donations, vast and tiny. The poem, The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus was her contribution, an auction item. 17 years past before it was enshrined on the base because the meaning of the Statue of Liberty has always flickered and shifted, though she's always been a potent symbol of something. The Statue of Liberty means precisely what you think it means. It also means the opposite. Kramer says that there are actually three statues, the Statue of the Guardian, the Statue of the Exile, and the Statue of the State, the Imperial Statue.
Paul Kramer: In some ways, the statute begins as what I'm calling the Guardian Statue, which is actually not an immigration symbol. It's a symbol of anti-immigration. This is a symbol of a certain white exclusionary nation that is trying to protect itself from the world. If you look at some of the political cartoons from around the time the statue was built, it is understood by some commentators as a guardian of the nation, standing at the threshold as a kind of police officer, as a kind of border control agent, that is going to keep out the rabble that is going to send a message that the United States is able to protect its borders.
Early on the most famous poem that's associated with the statue when it comes to immigration is not Emma Lazarus, his poem, The New Colossus. It's Thomas Bailey Aldrich's The Unguarded Gate from 1892, and it's a rabidly xenophobic poem.
Brooke Gladstone: It refers to the statue as a white goddess warning her of a wild motley throng on the nation's doorstep, bringing their unknown gods and REITs, strange tongues, and tiger passions here to stretch their claws.
Paul Kramer: Yes, he's really going for broke there. Other cases I found where the KKK at one point has a parade in Bellingham, Washington, and they put us a picture of the Statue of Liberty on the back of a wagon. The idea that the Statue of Liberty doesn't represent inclusion or racial justice or welcome to immigrants, I think is an important part of the story.
Rush Limbaugh: Lady Liberty is carrying the light of liberty to the rest of the world.
Brooke Gladstone: Rush Limbaugh embraces the guardian model.
Rush Limbaugh: That is not a beacon for immigrants to get to this country because they're tired, they're poor, they're huddled, hungry or thirsty.
Paul Kramer: While the Guardian Statue for its proponents is synonymous with a certain kind of racialized nation, the Exile Statue always remains offshore, it always remains at a remove from the nation. It represents a universal value of welcome and freedom and sanctuary for the oppressed. The Exile statue really begins with immigrants coming over on the boat. It's a sign that they have arrived in the United States, it's a sign of safety, it's a sign of optimism and hope. Soon, immigrants are putting the statue on their guide books that they send home to greenhorns that train them in how to get by in America when they arrive.
They send it on their postcards. It becomes a part of imagery so that people arriving expect the statue. It's no longer a discovery, it's a kind of expectation, but those meanings remain within immigrant cultures. They don't become a part of the larger American public culture until later.
Brooke Gladstone: You've said that, that Guardian Statue period extended from its creation to around 1940, but it certainly overlapped then with the Exile Statue.
Paul Kramer: Yes, absolutely. I think there's this period between, say, the 1920s, 1930s, and the '40s and '50s where these two formations are rivals in some important ways in public imagery.
Brooke Gladstone: Irving Berlin or playing in 1949.
Writer, immigrant, anti-fascist, Louis Adamic, was in the vanguard of those who took up the Lazarus Poem to promote the statue of exile. Diversity, he said, was the best defense against the real threat of fascism.
Paul Kramer: The idea that the strongest nations are ones that respect diversity, that encourage it, that don't require a coercive assimilation of immigrant groups but that each group is able to contribute its unique spirit, its unique gifts to the nation as a whole.
Speaker 3: To the farms of Iowa and Nebraska came the Scandinavians, and in smaller numbers, the Slavs, Italians, the Jews.
Speaker 4: To the mills of New England come the French, Canadians, the Irish, the Portuguese, the Slavs.
Brooke Gladstone: In radio programs like Americans All, Immigrants All in the late '30s, he strove to enshrine the Statue of Exile into the mainstream of American culture against great odds by making it part of an American national creed.
Paul Kramer: It can be a little embarrassing by contemporary sensibilities in the way that it ties specific groups to their inner genius, but within the context of the time, it's clearly doing some very important egalitarian work.
Brooke Gladstone: But this is something of a mixed message because even as it rejects the fearful bigotry of the Guardian Statue in favor of the Statue of Exile, it also embraces the third statue in Paul Kramer's schematic, The Imperial One.
Paul Kramer: One of the complicated things in any message about the statue is that often these three statues intertwin with each other. That's one reason why I think it's important to distinguish the exile statue from the imperial statue even though the imperial statue often ventriloquizes Emma Lazarus and invokes Emma Lazarus to give a generous humanitarian gloss, but ultimately, it is about the utility of immigrants for the nation.
Brooke Gladstone: Later, President Johnson would celebrate immigrants at the foot of Lady Liberty by listing a series of the foreign-sounding names of soldiers who died in Vietnam.
President Johnson: Man named Fernandes, and Zedia, Angelico, and Mariano.
Brooke Gladstone: Adamic did not live to see that but Kramer thinks he would have found the spectacle grotesque.
Paul Kramer: The Imperial statue is America. It is America declaring itself as the exemplar of freedom throughout the world. Freedom is what the United States is, it isn't what America does and sometimes doesn't do.
Brooke Gladstone: Consider this invocation of the Imperial statue during the statue's centennial in 1986 when there was a refugee crisis sparked by America's backing of dictatorships south of the border.
Speaker 5: The light for tonight will surely cast its glow up in it as it has upon us for two centuries, keeping faith with a dream of long ago and guiding millions still to a future of peace and freedom.
Paul Kramer: I was able to find some quotations from reporters go to immigrant detention at the tip of Manhattan and people in immigrant detention including people fleeing some of these US-backed conflicts are there and they can hear the celebrations from within jail. I just think that in a way is, I think the Imperial statue expressed in its essence, is the imagery of inclusion and celebration of immigrants' social mobility and freedom and opportunity in a context where actual refugees are being subjected to violence and discrimination.
Brooke Gladstone: There was a newspaper cartoon for this period with the towering statue of liberty looking down at a disheveled person holding a suitcase and the text says, "Give me your rich, your famous, your Nobel laureates, your Russian poets, and Polish emissaries, your respectable white anti-Soviets yearning to breathe free."
Speaker 5: Now, we will unveil that gallant lady. Thank you and God bless you all.
Brooke Gladstone: As the sun beats down on Liberty Island, the solemn gloriously green lady pierces the brilliant sky but offers no shade. Many of the humans below cheerfully check off a box on their list of tourist sites. Back at her unveiling, the response was far more fraught. 200 women sail to the island proclaiming the quote, "In erecting a statue of liberty embodied as a woman in a land where no woman has political liberty, men have shown a delightful inconsistency."
Only a few years earlier, the government had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, our first big immigration law, and it was explicitly racist. It sparked the so-called driving out period when Chinese were shot, stabbed, burned, and starved.
As for African Americans, the Black-owned Cleveland Gazzette offered this editorial, "Shove the statue, torch and all into the sea, until the liberty of this country is such as to make it possible for an inoffensive and industrious colored man in the South to earn a respectable living for himself and his family without being Ku Kluxed, perhaps murdered, his daughter and wife outraged, his property destroyed. The idea of the liberty of this country in enlightening the world, or even Patagonia, is ridiculous in the extreme."
James Baldwin: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
Brooke Gladstone: James Baldwin in the eighties.
James Baldwin: The moment I do that, I'm in trouble again because they obviously have not included in that pronouncement that they are endowed by their creator certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What is liberty? For Black Americans, where Black can happen to this country, the statue of liberty is simply a very bitter joke.
Brooke Gladstone: Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
with conquering limbs that stride 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-tossed, to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
Paul Kramer: One question I have, just thinking about the history of the changing meanings of the statue in immigration, is whether the statue will continue to be an important icon of immigration heading into the next century. The way that the memory of the statue is linked to the Lazarus Poem has this very particular kind of relationship to European immigrants of the early 20th century.
One of the things that struck me when I was looking at the refugee crisis in the '80s is that there were sanctuary movement activists who invoked the statue and said, "The Imperial Statue of Reagan is a phony and the real statue is the Exile Statue." There were others who said, "The statue doesn't mean anything to us. Our struggle is about the border, it's about Latin America, it doesn't speak to an ocean crossing."
One of the things I think is interesting to think about is whether with the fading of that European immigrants wave and its cultural descendants, whether the statue will continue to hold on as a symbol that people will invoke or whether other images will take over.
Brooke Gladstone: Having had three of my own grandparents pass it on the way to Ellis Island, I'll always have feelings for the old girl, but there will be more relevant emblems of struggle. The question is, will they be as resilient?
As Kramer said, the Sanctuary Movement was focused on the Southern border, but it still laid claim to the statue's true meaning. He notes that in the '50s as immigrant movements talked up the benefits of admitting European refugees displaced by the war, Langston Hughes described Lady Liberty in the Chicago Defender as having her face turned to the Old World, welcoming European refugees from poverty and hate, standing in New York Harbor with her back to Harlem.
Hughes called on African Americans to ask the country, "When will you permit us the privileges you offer Russians, Germans, Pols, and Danes who come to our shores," but then he said, "Liberty would take delight in asking those questions for you." Liberty, she's a dream, an aspiration of grace that happened to land in New York Harbor. She is not America. She's no nation. She was a gift. The rest is up to us.
Thanks for listening to this podcast extra. For more OTM, sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Twitter. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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