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Mining the Archive: Emma and Immigration

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!"

This beautiful poetry speaks for itself. Even if you had never heard of the Statue of Liberty or had no information about the “huddled masses” who came by the boatload to Ellis Island yearning for freedom, this piece would still be touching and beautiful. It is a poem that presents a universal set of motifs: kindness, welcoming, strength, and hope.

Long before Emma Lazarus’ words were immortalized on that great copper statue, she was a young Jewish American girl growing up in New York. Throughout her life she produced numerous poems, essays, letters, translations, and even a novel.  

Apart from her writing, Lazarus also worked with the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society and helped establish the Hebrew Technical Institute and agricultural communities for Eastern European Jews in the United States. In 1883, at the age of 34, she wrote the poem above, entitled “The New Colossus”.  This poem would later be carved into the base of the Statue of Liberty.

I have little doubt that, were this talented and prolific woman alive today, her staple issue would be immigration reform.

Emma Lazarus lived during the great waves of German and Eastern European Jewish immigration to the United States and was an active participant in helping her people come to the land she had grown to love. In Lazarus’ time (as in ours), the United States was a beacon of hope for people fleeing cruel governments and broken societies. For each influx of visitors, there have been naysayers who speak of an America that is exclusively for Americans. But the truth is, ever since the arrival of the first Europeans on its shores, America has never truly been only for Americans. From the English immigrants who settled Jamestown in 1607 (which was, by the way, not done with the consent of the Native peoples who already inhabited the area) to the modern women, men, and children who cross the United States border illegally in search of work, America has been a land of immigrants for hundreds of years.

Modern immigrants need American citizens to protect their right to discover the American Dream for themselves, just as we or our parents or our great-great-great-grandparents once did. They need everyday citizens to demand reform and to implore our elected officials to change the way they treat the thousands of individuals who cross the border (or are carried across the border as mere babies), hoping for a better life. They need us to be like Emma Lazarus, who reached out a helping hand for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, and the tempest-tost.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Activism, Poetry
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How to cite this page

Kozukhin, Yana. "Mining the Archive: Emma and Immigration ." 4 November 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 25, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/mining-archive-emma-and-immigration>.

Emma Lazarus.

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