You Can Break a Law, You Can’t Break a Poem

National Public Radio reporter Rachel Martin recently interviewed Ken Cucinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. During the course of their discussion, she asked him if the Trump administration’s new public charge rule violated the ethos represented by the poem inscribed on a plaque inside the base of the Statue of Liberty – “New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus. Mr. Cuccinelli replied that it did not, immigrants should be required to financially stand on their own two feet.

Thus emerged one of the dopiest political narratives to come out of the mainstream media in recent memory. And most major news outlets began treating Emma Lazarus’ sonnet as a binding, statutory proclamation of U.S. immigration rules. The “Law of Lazarus,” if you will.

In short, mainstream journalists claimed that “New Colossus” is the definitive statement of what it means to be a “nation of immigrants.” And they asserted that plans to enforce public charge rules, which require that immigrants refrain from accepting means tested public benefits during their first five years in the United States, were merely a cover for limiting immigration to Caucasian, English speakers. They’re wrong on all counts.

In case you are unfamiliar with “New Colossus,” it is a 14 line sonnet that ends with the oft-quoted lines:

“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!”

The poem was written by Ms. Lazarus specifically to be auctioned off as part of the campaign to raise funds for the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty was erected. Her verse was only added to the monument in 1903, following her death. And, as anyone who has visited the statue can tell you, it’s nestled away in an interior stairwell and doesn’t feature prominently.

Despite assertions to the contrary, it is clear that Ms. Lazarus was not arguing for open borders. She was a well-known advocate for Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in Czarist Russia. And her verse compares the Statue of Liberty, which symbolizes freedom and a republican form of government, to the ancient Colossus of Rhodes, which Ms. Lazarus used to represent a hidebound old world.

Rather than a general statement advocating that the U.S. accept only poor migrants, her poem was an acknowledgement that the America had become a prime destination for those seeking personal liberty – including the liberty to succeed by dint of one’s own labors. It celebrates those who wished to make their own way in the world, free from the religious, social and political strictures that were prominent in 19th Century Europe.

It does not refer not to poverty-stricken immigrants searching for a social safety net. In fact, as Daniel Horowitz writing at Conservative Review has noted, “There was no welfare when Emma Lazarus wrote that poem, nor did it exist throughout the entire duration of the Great Wave of immigration. By definition, someone coming here during that era, even if they were currently poor, was engaging in a risky act of rugged individualism whereby they had to sink or swim on their own.” As such, says Horowitz, Lazarus’ poem “means exactly the opposite of what immigrant welfare advocates think.”

So, why has the borderless-world contingent locked onto a schmaltzy piece of middling verse as if it represented the Founding Fathers’ be-all end-all vision of immigration policy? Because despite their best efforts, immigrant advocates and their media allies have not persuaded Americans that the U.S is obligated to admit and pay for every foreigner who comes knocking on our door.

Lacking any rational arguments against longstanding immigration requirements that protect American taxpayers from financial ruin, the open borders lobby appeals to raw emotion and accuses the president of violating the “generous” national spirit that allegedly prevailed when Ellis Island made America great. However, there’s a huge problem with their logic. Immigrants who go on the dole are breaking the law – not violating a questionable interpretation of a poorly understood poem.

About Author


Matthew J. O’Brien joined the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in 2016. Matt is responsible for managing FAIR’s research activities. He also writes content for FAIR’s website and publications. Over the past twenty years he has held a wide variety of positions focusing on immigration issues, both in government and in the private sector. Immediately prior to joining FAIR Matt served as the Chief of the National Security Division (NSD) within the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (FDNS) at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), where he was responsible for formulating and implementing procedures to protect the legal immigration system from terrorists, foreign intelligence operatives, and other national security threats. He has also held positions as the Chief of the FDNS Policy and Program Development Unit, as the Chief of the FDNS EB-5 Division, as Assistant Chief Counsel with U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement, as a Senior Advisor to the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman, and as a District Adjudications Officer with the legacy Immigration & Naturalization Service. In addition, Matt has extensive experience as a private bar attorney. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in French from the Johns Hopkins University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Maine School of Law.


  1. avatar

    Trump’s proposals to make sure that legal immigrants can support themselves has done what his actions usually do. Because the propaganda by the left and media has always been that immigrants are a total positive. Now that Trump has spotlighted the massive amount of welfare assistance going to immigrants, more than their share of the population, the left and media now change their argument to acknowledge that yes they do get it, but it’s worth it because they “strengthen the economy” and “enrich our society”.

    But it’s hard to argue that widespread welfare assistance that frequently is paid for decades, and sometimes for generations, is some big plus for this country. It’s nothing but a subsidy to big business who insist on a never ending supply of cheap labor.

    • avatar

      It would appear that democrats, leftists, communists, social justice warriors, antifa, illegal aliens, and more, (but I repeat myself) beclown themselves every time they open their pieholes.

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  3. avatar

    Even Harry Reid Agrees

    The Open Border Agenda hurts the Democrats like Medicare for All. Come Nov 2020 election the Open Border Party better get off the Trump Bashing and look for an agenda that wins, not loses elections. Common sense.