Immigration Statue of Liberty Photo Gallery

In this June 2009 photo, the Statue of Liberty stands in New York harbor. A biographer of poet Emma Lazarus on Wednesday challenged the comment by the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that the poem on the statue refers to European immigrants.

Long before a government official suggested the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty welcomed only people from Europe, the words captured America’s promise to newcomers at a time when the nation also was seeking to exclude many immigrants from landing on its shores.

A biographer of poet Emma Lazarus on Wednesday challenged the comment by the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, explaining that Lazarus’ words were her way of urging Americans “to embrace the poor and destitute of all places and origins.”

Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus” in 1883, one year after Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned laborers from China. The poem is best known for its line about welcoming “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Beginning in the 1930s, supporters of immigration began using the poem to bolster their cause. Biographer Esther Schor said Lazarus was “deeply involved” in refugee causes.

Ken Cuccinelli suggested Tuesday in an interview with NPR that the line should be changed to “give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

He spoke a day after the federal government announced it would move to deny green cards to many migrants who use Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance, under existing rules that require people trying to gain legal status to prove they would not be a “public charge,” or burden to the government. Those rules would exempt active-duty military members, refugees or asylum seekers.

Cuccinelli, who has said his family is of Irish and Italian origin, told CNN that the poem referred “to people coming from Europe where they had class-based societies.”

Immigrants from around the world rejected that assertion. The poem itself says of the statue, “From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome.”

“European immigrants are so offended that we would be in a more privileged position or looked upon more favorably because of that,” said Fiona McEntee, a native of Ireland who settled in the U.S. in 2005 and is now an immigration lawyer based in Chicago. “I just think of the Irish immigrants that came over back in the 1800s, early 1900s. That’s really similar to a lot of the immigrants today.”

As tourists sailed and walked around the statue on Wednesday, Primoz Bedenk, an entrepreneur from Slovenia said Lazarus’ poem was “not meant to exclude or select certain people.”

“From the first day, they were words that welcomed everyone, not just those who suit today’s establishment,” Bedenk said.