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Lady Liberty Not a Welcome Mat
By Brenda Walker

Published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on July 4, 2003

Great icons may suffer great misunderstandings in which erroneous mythology grows to obliterate the real meaning of an important symbol. Probably the most misunderstood image in America is the Statue of Liberty, which is surely burdened with more wrong ideas than any other symbol in our history.

First and foremost, Lady Liberty was never designed as a welcome mat for immigrants, those huddled masses about whom we hear so much sentimentality. The real name of the statue is "Liberty Enlightening the World" which states the true meaning.

Indeed, the sculptor's intent was for the statue to inspire millions around the world to emulate the freedom of the United States, not to leave home and come here. The statue is at heart a revolutionary symbol for the oppressed to throw off their chains and create their own democracy under law. Sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi believed deeply in republican government and dreamed of having it in his native France, remarking, "I will try to glorify the Republic and Liberty over there, in the hope that someday I will find it again here."

Further, the Emma Lazarus poem, "The New Colossus" which is a hymn to immigration, is not inscribed on the base of the statue, as some would have us believe, and has no connection at all with Bartholdi's vision. The statue was inaugurated in 1886 quite adequately with no Emma Lazarus. The poem's inclusion was a completely separate event, dedicated by some friends of the poet in 1903 after her death.

The Statue of Liberty's intent to inspire people to build their own democratic societies is even more important now that the planet is home to over six billion persons. The huddled masses cannot all be saved by immigration to America. The rescue paradigm of immigration is clearly no longer appropriate, if it ever was. The numbers of needy poor worldwide are simply too high.

In fact, the "wretched refuse of your teeming shore" threatens to become a permanent underclass, since even the most basic educational standards in selecting immigrants have been disregarded. Because of the emphasis on "family reunification," one-third of current legal immigrants have not graduated from high school -- hardly the ideal newcomers to a modern society in the 21st century.

Each of those immigrants without a high school education will consume an average of $89,000 in services beyond what is paid in taxes, according to a National Academy of Sciences study.

The Lazarus poem should be removed from Bedloe Island and banished to a dark corner of the Smithsonian as an artifact of another time. The poem perpetuates the myth that America can grow in population forever, which is a deeply damaging idea. The physical requirements of so many people are destroying the nation's environmental carrying capacity and our natural heritage of inspiring open vistas.

Removing the plaque would be an important step toward reclaiming our heritage. "Liberty Enlightening the World" is a far more noble sentiment than "Mother of Exiles" which celebrates victimhood. We must face the limits of our overcrowded world with creativity and realism. America's message for this century must be to urge local development, e.g. through microlending. On the crowded planet, relieving poverty where people live must be the aim.

It's high time that America provided better environmental leadership regarding overpopulation, and removing the obsolete Lazarus poem from the Statue of Liberty would be a good place to start.

Brenda Walker is a writer living in California. She is the project director of