Essay by Mihaela Moscaliuc


Essay by Mihaela Moscaliuc

When Principal Deputy Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli suggested, in August 2019, that immigrants be welcomed if “they can stand on their own two feet, be self-sufficient, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, again, as in the American tradition,” I had no doubt that what had started as a tentative project a month or so earlier had become a necessity.

My involvement originated with the desire to help make the message of “The New Colossus”—as encapsulated in Alicia Ostriker’s introduction— accessible in multiple languages, as might simultaneous translations at a global summit. I envisioned a Mother of Exile also willing to render herself intelligible to those arriving on these shores without knowledge of English—a polyphonous, polyglot mother. I wanted her to welcome newcomers in their own tongues—a small gesture of hospitality, but one that should remind us that current anti-immigration rhetoric, though by no means singular in U.S. history, exhibits the failings, rather than the achievements, of our ongoing experiment in democracy. The upsurge in nationalism, jingoism, racism, and xenophobia in the U.S. and other countries has left people—fleeing war, persecution, poverty, or devastations resulting from climate change—stranded, without much hope, in harrowing situations. The disturbing truth is that many of the nations, including the U.S., that turn their backs or close their doors have been complicit, if not directly implicated, in shaping the very histories that led and continue to lead to immigration and refugee crises. They have done so through occupation, enslavement, territorial expansion, colonialism and neo-colonialism, or covert operations that maintain selfish economic and political interests elsewhere.

I do not read “The New Colossus” as a statement of America’s greatness (though I honor such readings as well as dissenting ones), but as the expression of a sincere refusal to remain impassive in the face of global violence and oppression. In extending the welcome to those dispossessed by history, the sonnet’s Mother of Exile embodies some of the most admirable values of American democracy. She has upheld this vision since her ‘birth’ in 1883, weathering with resilient defiance historical moments that have threatened these values.

In 2020 I will have lived in the U.S. for half of my life. I arrived with fifty dollars in my pocket, without family, and relying entirely on the hospitability of people I barely knew or had never before (such as my host family). Sill, I was not one of the “tired” and “poor” desperate to “breathe free.” I came from Romania post-Cold War, in 1996, at a time when U.S. politics favored people like me, white and educated, on academic visas, even those of us from the ‘wrong’ side of Europe. Nonetheless, 23 years later, some of the closest people in my life still may not enter the U.S. to visit me—one of those ironies through which the U.S. can ‘afford’ to set military training bases in some of my homeland’s pristine areas, but won’t grant tourist visas to Romanians.

At the beginning of the 20th century, however, I would not have been this fortunate. I would have been considered part of what lawyer Allen G. Braxton, in his contribution to the 1907-1911 Reports of the Immigration Commission (known as the Dillingham Reports), called “the cesspool of Europe” that was turning America into “sewage.” Or I would have been one of the “sordid and hapless elements,” in Woodrow Wilson’s words (recorded in a book published in 1902) of whom Europe was “disburdening” itself. Many immigrant groups before and since the turn of the 20th century have circled in and out of official discourses and populist views that deemed them as threats, pollutants, contaminants, and as contributors to what Theodore Roosevelt dubbed, in 1905, ‘race suicide.’ Lazarus knew, just as her contemporary Mary Antin (a Russian Jewish immigrant writer) argued in her seminal 1912 autobiography The Promised Land, that “what we get in the steerage is not the refuse but the sinew and bone of all the nations.”

When Lazarus wrote her poem in 1883, nativism was gaining traction in the U.S. and European colonial projects were expanding. The year before, the Chinese Exclusion Act had been passed and remained in place till 1943, and three decades after, the Immigration Act of 1917 and the Acts of 1921 and 1924 (the latter revoked in 1965) set quotas and ceilings. Examples meant to serve particular U.S. interests and ideologies abound. We are living one. Within its fourteen lines, "The New Colossus" does not address many aspects of U.S. history, including the violence perpetrated against the original inhabitants. What it does address, however, needs listening to, and in multiple tongues. Lazarus’s speaks poignantly to times like ours just as it spoke to previous times of anti-immigration sentiments, insisting on a democratic vision powered by compassion and that remains, at its core, inclusionary and welcoming.

We are grateful to all who dedicated their time and expertise to the project and ferried the “The New Colossus” into Yiddish, Hebrew, Spanish, Spanglish, Persian, Sicilian, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Romanian, Ukrainian, French, Albanian, Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Basque, Serbo-Croatian, Polish, Slovak, German, Swedish, Irish, Arabic, Bulgarian, Turkish, Czech, Haitian Creole, Argentinian Spanish, Filipino, Korean, Tamil, Urdu, Esperanto, Greek, Shona, Kumanji, and Isthmus Zapotec.

These translations honor Lazarus’s elegantly cadenced English while also interrupting it, via the work of reconfiguration and alteration that translation always performs, to suggest that our accents and mother tongues not only have a place in this country, but also a role in keeping English vulnerable, its dominance subject to scrutiny. Whether we actively use them or not, these native or heritage languages have become part of the textures of U.S. cultures and remain intimately connected to individual and collective identities across the globe.

This garland of translations remains incomplete and does not include, nor attempt to represent, a substantial portion of the voices and languages spoken in the U.S. and around the globe. Like Emma Lazarus’s gesture, ours too is symbolic. We hope, however, that it will inspire many others to lend their tongues to the Mother of Exile so that she, and we through her, extend the welcome.