The Mother of Exiles

by | Jan 29, 2017 | Culture | 17 comments

Unless you are Native American, if you live in the United States you are either descended from immigrants or are an immigrant yourself. And unless you are, say, purely descended from the inhabitants of the Mayflower, at one time or another you or your ancestors were probably unfairly maligned, feared, discriminated against, or even openly persecuted for being outsiders. A good number of our forebears were either brought here against their will or were fleeing atrocities overseas.

The Statue of Liberty was a gift from France to commemorate the end of slavery and the centennial of the American democratic experiment. To help raise money for the base of the statue, Emma Lazarus, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Portugal, wrote a poem contrasting the ancient Colossus of Rhodes, which she likened to a giant conquerer, with the “Mother of Exiles”:

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 me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

We, as Americans, have fallen short of these ideals time and again, most commonly because of misplaced fear. For just one example from many, in the days after Holocaust Remembrance Day, it’s worth remembering that we turned away thousands of Jewish refugees, many of whom were ultimately killed by the Nazis, because of misguided fear that they were Nazi spies.

If only we were all as brave as the immigrants and refugees who left everything behind for the beacon of liberty.


  1. Lenora Good

    Thank you, Nathan. Well said.

  2. Cat

    Read the whole poem aloud, gave me chills.

  3. Suzy T. Kane

    Nicely articulated. Keeping the first and last paragraph and cutting the second, you should send this as a letter to the New York Times (in response to one of its articles on Trump's ban on Muslims from seven countries entry to the US).

  4. Oldy

    I imagine you feel a lot like I do in my country, whose leaders are perhaps just as bad in different, more subtle and secretive ways.

    I thought we were better than this. And I'm bitterly disappointed to learn that we're not.

  5. Shari Pratt

    Thoughtfully considered, Nathan. I fear that all the social gains this country made in the last 70 – 80 years have been gutted. Then I read articles like this one, and see people marching, researching facts, standing beside neighbors, writing to their representatives, and I realize there are still many people of good will and decency.

  6. Aggie Cowboy

    Well said. In my academic career I have met many different people of many different cultures. The ones I am most uncomfortable around are Americans who hold to far right religious beliefs.

  7. Neurotic Workaholic

    I think that Trump enjoys the power that he now holds over people's lives; I think that's partly why he ran for President in the first place, so that he could possess that power. It's a big ego trip for him. If he's damaged this many people's lives in one week, imagine how much more havoc he'll wreak over the next four years!


    Thanks for quoting Emma Lazarus' poem in full Nathan.

    I am very grateful the Trumps of this world were not in power when my parents emigrated to the USA from Ireland, or when I emigrated with them back to Ireland from the USA.

  9. Schmoozyschlepp

    Lovely post.I think so many of us, worldwide, wonder what is happening in our countries, to social progress, to a wider understanding of differences, to all the things we cherish. Expect a larger than usual rush of adult dystopian novels across your desk in the next few months!

  10. Regina Clarke

    It is totally bizarre that we must even have a dialog like this. It means the end of America's image as the leader of the free world, and of the hope for those who are not free.

    Whatever inspired the support for the current president, it was not idealistic, it was totally fear-based. I have no idea what we can do about it, but no question, action is essential. The poem on the Statue of Liberty is a testament to who we want to become as a nation. God help us in this.

    In an interview this morning, people in the midwest and south who voted for the current president stated they thought there was too much fuss and bother about the plight of immigrants after the ban. They truly did not see it as persecution and a travesty. They believe they have "first dibs" on America. The only thing that will change them is if the promised jobs do not come through. It was the Depression that fostered new ideals. Maybe the revelation of this whole mess is that the worst aspects of the country's embedded outlook are revealed once and for all, and we cannot be complacent about that anymore, or keep it hidden–we have to deal with it, and find a better way.

    One aside in the interview was equally interesting–people interviewed said they didn't care what "those people" who lived on coastal America think–it is an us versus them.

  11. wendy

    I disagree with everyone, it seems. After reading how the influx of refugees have almost brought some European countries to their knees, I speculate that President Trump might have some wisdom in his madness. The countries that were the worst affected seem to be Sweden and Germany where outbreaks of violence, murder and mayhem became commonplace. Refugees were trying to escape war-torn countries, but many took their problems and beliefs with them resulting in outbreaks of fighting and protests and turmoil. A 60 Minute team from Australia travelled to Sweden to report on the growing unrest and disintegration of the more gentle way of life in this country, and in minutes a gang of refugees began shouting insults and then wrestled a camera from the hands of a camera-man…if I remember rightly. The team from Australia gave up on continuing the story. Germany welcomed them with arms wide-open and then from a New Year's Eve celebration in Cologne came reports and charges of mass molestations and inappropriate conduct towards women by 'foreign young men'.


    Australian 60 Minutes Team in Sweden:



    Sharia Courts and Sharia Patrols harassing citizens in many European countries:

    Australia's Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has declared that he will be following President Trump's lead regarding future refugee immigration to this country.

  12. Nathan Bransford


    I don't doubt there have been incidents involving some refugees in Europe, but a) what do you make of statistics that show that immigrants are significantly less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens, b) what moral obligation do you think countries like the US have to help refugees, particularly when we've created that very humanitarian crisis, and c) do you personally know any former refugees and/or their children?

    This article that I linked to on Jewish refugees is instructive. One Nazi spy was used to justify denying the entry of thousands of Jewish refugees, many of whom ended up dying in the Holocaust.

  13. wendy

    Nathan, thanks for your response. The incidents I've mentioned aren't just isolated ones. They seem to be ongoing. I read of one European country sending thousands of refugees back to the countries from where they came as so much trouble erupted from their year-long stay in their host country. This statistic you gave is not borne out by actual reports and videos from across Europe – including the U.K. I don't know any former refugees and their children, but I remember in an outer Melbourne suburb, after refugees had began arriving, buses began bearing the banners: 'Knives take Lives.'

    I feel to compare the situation of the Jewish people during WW2 with the current refugees is like comparing apples and oranges. To be Jewish during WW2 was a guarantee of ending up in a concentration camp. And the Jewish people were demonised by a corrupt Government and evil propaganda. And to be honest, over the last twenty years or so I can't remember hearing one positive story or account of those who live according to the values in the Koran. It is permissible to slap a Christian, it says, but better still to kill one if that one won't agree to follow the ways of Islam. Only last week, I read of two Christian girls in Pakistan being deliberately run over by a carload of Muslim men. Again, I give an isolated incident, but over the years I've read of thousands of atrocities. Every day there seems to be new incidents around the world, and then there are the stories that might not leave the country where they occur but which are ongoing. If there was to be a gradual melting pot, a blending of cultures and ideologies to some degree, then there would be cause for hope. But do you think that's likely to happen? If over time, the newcomers can adapt a different way of life – a better way – which will be ever more embraced by succeeding generations, then it would be worth some temporary turmoil.

    But these are just my experiences and opinions. Thanks for allowing me to express them.

  14. Nathan Bransford


    I mean, if we're going to decide policies based solely on anecdotes and not statistics, should we ban all Trump supporters from Canada? One just killed six people.

    Refugees by definition are fleeing war-torn parts of the country, and yes, often we would be sending them back to a likely death (think of the people who have helped the US military in various places).

    The reason I asked about whether you knew refugees personally is that it seems like your views are swayed by personal experience, and I suspect you would feel differently about this if you sought out refugees or their children to hear their stories and

    And in term of a melting pot, just look at the writing world itself. It's full of immigrants, including from the countries you are concerned about.

  15. MET

    Thank you, Nathan. I do look forward to your blogs these days, more than ever. Just a small point: if you are descended from ancestors who came on the Mayflower – they, too, braved the voyage for religious freedom – many, to avoid having to pledge loyalty to the Church of England.


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