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Happy Birthday Lady Liberty!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Type “Statue of Liberty” into Google, and in .12 seconds you will receive 61.7 million results. If you have another .18 seconds to spend, you can score nearly nine million Statue of Liberty “Images”. Talk about brand recognition!

Countless companies (including more than a few immigration law firms) use Lady Liberty as part of their advertising and marketing materials, and for good reason. The statue, which this year celebrates its 125th anniversary, represents Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom. It is a distinctive and potent symbol of the United States, and of liberty, sanctuary and opportunity.

Closely associated with the Statue of Liberty is nearby Ellis Island, where the ancestors of tens of millions of present-day Americans arrived. Ellis Island hasn’t been used to process immigrants since the 1920s, and for some time was used as a deportation and detention center, but it too has powerful significance in the American psyche. In 1990 the Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened, and since then it has received more than 20 million visitors.

In honor of the 125th birthday of the Statue, there was a special celebration at the end of October in which 125 immigrants from 46 countries were sworn in as U.S. citizens. The festivities included fireworks, a gun salute and ships in New York Harbor spouting water into the air. The “Star Spangled Banner” was played, as was the French national anthem (the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France to the U.S.). Special guests included actress Sigourney Weaver (star of the popular “Alien” movies), and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Weaver read “The New Colossus,” the sonnet by Emma Lazarus whose most famous lines, “‘Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,’” have long inspired Americans, and would-be Americans.

It was no small matter getting the statue to the U.S from France, and the ship carrying Lady Liberty’s 300 copper pieces nearly sank. The 214 crates holding the statue arrived in New York in 1885, and the Statue of Liberty was assembled the following year when its pedestal was ready. (One hopes that the directions for assembly were clear: place crown in slot A, and then rotate torch so that it fits in slot B, being careful not to move arm already secured to body by bolts 1, 2 and 3).

Prior to its voyage to the U.S., pieces of the statue had already been exhibited, including the head, which was displayed at the 1878 World’s Fair in Paris, and the torch, which was shown at the U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, and subsequently at Madison Square Garden in New York. We think of the Statue exclusively as a monument; however, it was originally intended to serve as a lighthouse.

The Statue of Liberty is closing for a year for renovations; however, Liberty Island will remain open, as will Ellis Island, and Statue of Liberty webcams (including a TorchCam) are now operational.

We are a long way from the Statue’s 1886 unveiling. At that time, there were few immigration laws in the U.S., (although in 1882 Congress did pass the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring immigration from China). Today, immigration to the U.S. is not just difficult, it is complicated. It is also, in some cases, quite ugly. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, “Huddled Masses, Turned Away,” Robert M. Morgenthau, a former Manhattan District Attorney, suggests that in light of the 400,000 people deported from the U.S. last year, Emma Lazarus’s famous words have been “turned on their heads.” Perhaps so, although the affection that Americans hold for the Statue of Liberty, and for Ellis Island, suggests that the roots of the U.S. immigrant tradition remain strong. The composition of metropolitan New York City, and many other regions of the country, is another indicator of the strong role that immigration continues to play in the U.S., despite the many obstacles put in its place.

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