Put Emma Lazarus, Muse for a Nation of Immigrants, on the $20 Bill

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is the president of the Becoming American Institute, a nonprofit making the conservative case for immigration reform.

Emma Lazarus is my nominee to be the first woman on U.S. currency. Lazarus’ words, inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, have come to symbolize America as a nation of immigrants. She was no immigrant herself, having been born into a prominent New York family whose Sephardic Jewish ancestors traced their roots back to colonial times. Nonetheless, she managed to capture the unique aspects of American immigration. What other country in the world has welcomed so many people from across the globe and given them the opportunity to rise as high as their talents and hard work would take them? Most important, the United States confers on immigrants an equal claim to consider themselves Americans as those born here.

Emma Lazarus

Antoinette Geyelin Hoar,
via Associated Press

Realizing those ideals has never been easy, however. Each flock of newcomers has faced the suspicion that they were somehow different from the previous crop, whether it was the Germans and Irish in the 19th Century or the Italians, Jews, Poles and other Southern and Eastern Europeans at the beginning of the 20th Century. We tend to love the immigrants of our grandparents’ generation but aren’t so sure about the ones coming at the present, which certainly holds true today.

Lazarus’ words are a profound statement of American Exceptionalism. They remind us of who we are and where we come from:

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!

And they remind us, too, of what we’re capable of doing: Turning those tired, poor, huddled masses into Americans. At a time when immigration once again roils American politics, putting Emma Lazarus’ picture on the $20 bill would be a fitting tribute not only to women but to these principles.


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