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Statue of liberty overlooking Manhattan

Immigration History: Lessons from the Statue of Liberty

August 23, 2019

Immigration History: Lessons from the Statue of Liberty

 #5 Top News Lesson of 2019


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Immigration History and The Statue of Liberty

Watch the video, read the summary on and answer the questions about immigration history below. Follow along with the transcript here. If time allows, watch part of Ken Cuccinelli’s press conference on changes to immigration policy (watch video 14m:15s to 18m:25s, which includes a question about the “public charge” aspect of the Statue of Liberty) and read the article “Trump official says Statue of Liberty poem is about Europeans.”


The Trump administration is trying many strategies to address undocumented immigration in the U.S. However, the administration is also interested in providing more restrictions on legal immigration as well.

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services, held a news conference on Monday, Aug. 12, after the Trump administration announced it would start denying green cards for documented immigrants (immigrants here in the U.S. legally) if officials thought they might one day be considered a “public charge” — an individual who may one day have to use public assistance programs such as food stamps or Medicaid. Three states have filed lawsuitsstating the policy favors wealthier immigrants and goes against decades of case law. Cuccinelli said the rules will encourage “self-reliance and self-sufficiency for those seeking to come to or stay in the United States.”

The changes are set to take effect in mid-October. Immigration advocates say the policy would create a chilling effect for individuals and families who may become too fearful to apply for public programs covered by the new rule, which could have particularly significant consequences for the children in these families in terms of their access to health care and food security. Since the information surrounding the new rules has created confusion, many families have also left programs not included in the new rule, such as free/reduced school meal programs and the nutrition programs from Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

In an interview with National Public Radio last week, Cuccinelli said that the famous words on the Statue of Liberty which implore the world to “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” was an invitation to only those immigrants “who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” In a later interview, Cuccinelli stated the inscription referred to “people coming from Europe.”

The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus. How did the poem affect immigration history?

Immigration History, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Importance of The New Colossus

The inscription on the Statue of Liberty is part of a poem “The New Colossus” was written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus to raise funds for the statue. The poem was written a year after the passage of the first Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese laborers from legally immigrating to America. (Chinese laborers were a crucial workforce for mining and for building the transcontinental railroads across the U.S. in the 19th century, recruited from not only the West Coast but China itself. However, a backlash started against the Chinese workers, which resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act after the railroads were completed.)

In addition, the Immigration Act of 1882 had just been passed, which the Associated Press explains“required new arrivals to show they had the means to survive in what then was a nation without safety nets, a rule that has remained on the books ever since.” Over the years, the ways that the public charge rules were applied varied considerably.

In 1999, the federal government published a clarified set of rules and programs to help apply the public charge guidelines more consistently. The new changes announced by Mr. Cuccinelli increase the number of benefit programs that will negatively impact immigrants’ chances for a green card, including food stamps, housing and rental assistance, and non-emergency Medicaid (with some exceptions for services through school and disability programs).

Immigration History Discussion Questions

1) Essential question: Why did Ken Cuccinelli’s rewriting of Emma Lazarus’ poem cause a public outcry?

2) Public policy can appear tricky to understand because of the technical language used. In your own words, what do the new policy changes do? Do you agree with the changes? Explain.

3) Read Lazarus’s poem again. What line strikes you the most? What phrase strikes you the most? How does this poem frame immigration history in the United States? Explain why.

4) Do you know immigrants in your own family or community who have come to the U.S.? Why might such rules create a “chilling effect” among immigrants families? (You may want to take a quick look at the Buzzfeed article “Trump’s New Immigration Policy Could Make American Children Less Healthy.”)

5) Media literacy: What question would you have asked Cuccinelli at the press conference and why?

How did Emma Lazarus's poem affect immigration history in the United States?
Portrait of Emma Lazarus

Immigration History Extension Activity

Ken Cuccinelli refers to immigrants from Europe in his discussions of the Statue of Liberty.

  • During the big waves of immigration in the late 19th and early 20thcentury, what were some of the reasons that immigrants came from Europe?
  • Watch clip 3 about the Irish potato famine from PBS’ Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. about Stephen Colbert’s ancestors. The famine spurred half a million Irish immigrants to come to America, launching what is considered the “second wave” of Irish immigration to America. What conclusions can you draw about the economic situations of Irish immigrants coming over after the famine based on this video? [Vocabulary term: pauper]

This article was originally published by PBS NewsHour Extra and can be found here.

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PBS NewsHour Classroom helps teachers and students identify the who, what, where and why-it-matters of the major national and international news stories.


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