Opinion by Reece Jones
Updated 6:09 AM ET, Wed October 27, 2021
Reece Jones (@ReeceJonesUH) is a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow and chair of the Department of Geography and Environment at the University of Hawaii. He is the author of “White Borders: The History of Race and Immigration in the United States from Chinese Exclusion to the Border Wall.” The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
(CNN)For many Americans, the Statue of Liberty, dedicated 135 years ago this month, is an enduring symbol of the idea that the United States is a nation of immigrants. Lady Liberty’s torch was the first image of America for millions of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. Emma Lazarus’ immortal words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” are etched into a plaque on its base and into the collective memory of Americans. However, despite the symbolic power of the statue and the sincere belief that the US is a nation of immigrants, neither of these stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be an American is actually true.
The transformation of the meaning of the Statue of Liberty illustrates how Americans often misremember our history. The original purpose of the statue was to commemorate the end of slavery and the country’s centennial. It had nothing to do with immigration.
Similarly, the United States was never a country that allowed completely open immigration, particularly for non-White immigrants. The history of US immigration policy is one of ever-expanding restrictions and deportations of the poor and huddled masses, from Chinese Exclusion through the rapid removal of over 10,000 Haitians last month.
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