Rewriting The New Colossus, By Dr. Leonard Sowah

Barriers to healthcare Child Health Healthcare Equity Immigrant health immunization

Emma Lazarus a poet and activist wrote the poem on the plaque of the Statue of Liberty. The words say;

“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!”

These worlds welcomed immigrants to the United States from 1903 to 1954 when Ellis Island served as immigrant inspection centers for the ports of New York and New Jersey. Emma Lazarus the writer of this poem wrote this for an auction of arts and literary works to raise money for the construction of the pedestal for the statue of liberty in 1883. The poem was later etched on a plaque and fixed on this pedestal in 1903.

NYC-Walks-Blog-41a-New-Colossus1 (1)
Emma Lazarus and the New Colossus

While the Trump administration’s racially focused immigration policy may seem racist to us today, that has been the norm in US immigration over the years. US immigration has always been selective, reserving special programs for individuals with skills that are likely to benefit the country. Immigration also excluded people of non-European descent with different rules and legislation till 1952. Fortunately in recent history there has been few policies of selective racial preference in immigration. This situation is clearly changing with the current administration.

Policies like the Muslim ban, President Trump’s outburst asking why America should have immigrants from shithole countries and the laser focus on limiting entrance for refugees from Central America are just a few examples.

Last week, none other than acting Director of the Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) Ken Cuccinelli in an interview on CNN added more words to the poem “The New Colossus”. Mr Coccinelli suggested that this poem should read “give me your tired, your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” On further questioning his defence was that this poem was meant for people coming from Europe.

The ideas and beliefs expressed by our Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services can only serve one purpose, a racially based immigration policy.  Many believe that has always been the intent of this administration right from day 1 of the Trump campaign.

The administration’s plans to broaden limitations on the use of public assistance by immigrants if passed would have significant negative impact on poor immigrants. This plan would include health benefits and food stamps among public assistance use of which could bar immigrants from citizenship.

Whilst most can understand the economic logic driving such laws, they unfortunately affect the lives of both Americans and Immigrants. Before we walk down this path we must as a nation consider some of the consequences of such action. Unfortunately most of these are real problems today but can only get worse with such legislations.

  • Immigrants may pass up needed health coverage and as such experience poor health outcomes.
  • Americans living in households with immigrants would be affected because even though children from poor families can access Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) families would avoid these making their children less likely to seek needed healthcare
  • Communicable diseases rates could continue to rise in immigrant populations with easy transmissions across our communities
  • Immunization rates among immigrant children could drop derailing all efforts at controlling vaccine preventable diseases
  • Food and nutritional assistance for families ensure that young children are healthy poor access for immigrant children could affect both physical and cognitive development of such children

The Trump administration must carefully consider the unintended consequences of such a policy before they push ahead.  Once more I would say our lives are more intertwined than we care to know. The health of your neighbor unfortunately is your business because it can impact your own health.

Today, I would ask all Americans irrespective of race, religion, and political persuasion to stand with all our neighbors immigrants and Americans alike against any such policy targeting the weakest among us. This does not represent us as a people, we share our lives and resources.

 Dr. Leonard Sowah is an Internal Medicine Physician in Baltimore, Maryland

Feature photo: “Statue of Liberty (2)” by Dorset Photographic is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0



A physician providing primary medical care to patients across the lifespan