Fiery White House Exchange Ignites Debate About What The Statue Of Liberty Represents

"Aren't you trying to change what it means to be an immigrant?"

On Wednesday, a fiery debate between CNN reporter Jim Acosta and White House advisor Stephen Miller made headlines across the country,

The two sparred in the White House briefing room, as reporters and White House representatives are known to do, over immigration. But a line of questioning from Acosta took the conversation in an unusual and unexpected direction: what the Statue of Liberty and the famous poem mounted at her feet actually mean.

It happened after Acosta, questioning a White House immigration plan that would preference new immigrants that already speak English, read off parts of Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus," which was written in 1883 but only added to Lady Liberty 19 years after she was completed, in 1903.

"The Statue of Liberty says, 'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.' It doesn't say anything about speaking English or being a computer programmer," Acosta said. "Aren't you trying to change what it means to be an immigrant coming into this country if you're telling them that you have to speak English?"

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Here is the full text of the poem:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "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 m
e,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Responding to Acosta, Miller made the point that the inscription on the Statue of Liberty was not a point of law, but rather a poem added well after France gifted the monument to the United States. Conservative commentators largely cheered this historical reference, while liberal pundits thought it was a gross minimization of an attitude America has long had towards immigration. 

The immigration debate, of course, is a complex one. But after the testy exchange, historians took some time to offer a host of interesting facts about Lady Liberty. On MSNBC, anchor Brian Williams interviewed two historians, Michael Beschloss and Jon Meachem, who responded to the wild day. Both seemed to side with CNN's Jim Acosta.

"This strikes me as a little bit of history by Google argument from the White House," Meachem said of Miller's comments. "Emma Lazarus wrote the poem to raise money for the Statue of Liberty, it was put on about 20 years after and has been fused as a symbol of liberty and immigration."

Meachem also mentioned that seems Americans are seeing a "perennially ambivalent" relationship with immigration, and large portions of Americans seem to feel more and more negative towards immigrants. 

"His saying that the poem doesn't count because it was put on later is like saying the Bill of Rights was ratified four years after the constitution so Bill of Rights isn't very important either," Beschloss told Williams. 

But other circles saw what happened a bit differently. Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro took to Twitter to articulate what he thought was a hypocrisy from the left.

"In the Left's America, Emma Lazarus' poem on the Statue of Liberty is to be read literally as law, but the Constitution is vague poetry," he said.

Rich Lowry, the editor-in-chief of the conservative National Review, also backed Miller. In an opinion piece published at Politico titled "Stephen Miller TKOs Jim Acosta," Lowry blasted Acosta for what he said was partisan reporting and misinformed historical references.

"At the dedication of the statue in 1886, President Grover Cleveland declared that the statue's 'stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man's oppression until Liberty enlightens the world,'" Lowry wrote. "His soaring oration did not include the admonition that so-called comprehensive immigration reform would henceforth be considered the only acceptable immigration policy for the United States."

In the wake of the debate, Acosta conceded that Miller was "steeped in immigration knowledge" and insisted he was only trying to push him on a policy proposal that seemed to run contrary to American values.  He also tweeted the full text of Lazarus' poem, before returning to political commentary.

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