New Americans and the inspirational lady in New York harbor

By Susan Laudicina
Poster with an illustration of people and luggage on the deck of a ship, gazing out at the Statue of Liberty.

The iconic Statue of Liberty is one of the most recognizable figures in the world. She has long been a symbol of freedom and hope to Americans and past immigrants. But what does Lady Liberty mean to today's immigrants who aspire to become naturalized U.S. citizens?

Lawful U.S. permanent residents (Green Card holders) hail from all continents, socioeconomic backgrounds, and levels of education. Some enroll in a citizenship preparation program before undergoing the U.S. Naturalization Interview plus English and Civics Test. As someone who has taught this course, I've found that class discussion of the Statue of Liberty prompts students to reflect on how their hopes and values relate to the Statue's promise and the American experience. I've also discovered that sharing objects in the museum's collections makes these class discussions even richer.

Statue's early relationship to immigrants

The Statue of Liberty was dedicated on October 28, 1886, with speeches by President Grover Cleveland and other dignitaries. She was hailed as a gift from the French people to symbolize the friendship between two nations with democratic ideals. The President's speech celebrated the values of the Enlightenment—and did not mention immigration.

Tiny passers-by are dwarfed by the scale of the Statue of Liberty.
Lady Liberty has been a symbol of democracy and Franco-American friendship, the “Golden Door” of welcome to immigrants—and a lighthouse. (2013.0327.0274)

So, how did the monument titled “Liberty Enlightening the World” come to be known as a beacon of liberty welcoming immigrants? Her new and enduring identity was boosted by four developments: her arrival coincided with a massive wave of European immigrants, more than 12 million, arriving by steamship from 1892-1924 to the United States through Ellis Island; Emma Lazarus' poem “The New Colossus,” written on her pedestal since 1903, popularized her role as the Mother of Exiles; the U.S. government's posters featuring images of the Statue and calling on new immigrants to support World War I efforts; and U.S. Liberty coins minted to commemorate the Statue’s 100th anniversary in 1986.

Poster with an illustration of people and luggage on the deck of a ship, gazing out at the Statue of Liberty. Below the image, the text: “Your duty. Buy United States Government Bonds. 2nd Liberty Loan of 1917.
In 1917, the U.S. population was almost 100 million. One-third of Americans were immigrants themselves or their parents were born abroad. U.S. government-sponsored posters featuring the Statute of Liberty called on immigrants to support the war effort. (1989.0486.001)

What do today's Green Card holders think of the Statue?

My class interactions over several years have revealed that U.S. permanent residents are generally unaware of the French gift origin story. Instead, the Statue is viewed as a symbol of hope and inspiration. To paraphrase a student from Mexico, the Statue tells us that everyone who comes here is free and protected from mistreatment. A young woman from El Salvador exclaimed that she is liberty for everyone here now and also gives hope to all who will come.

These citizenship preparation classes have included adults from 33 countries and from every continent except Oceania. This diverse group includes engineers, teachers, scientists, students, nannies, and construction workers, among many others. Yet, I've found that sharing my Liberty coin set with its images of immigrants' safe arrival on America's shores elicits shared feelings of pride.

Two U.S. Liberty coins. One has an image of the Statue of Liberty and the text “Ellis Island, Gateway to America.” Another shows a family on a dock looking at a city in the distance and the text “A nation of immigrants.”
These U.S. Liberty coins 1886–1986 were issued to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty's dedication. The silver dollar depicts the Statue as the gateway to America. The half-dollar coin celebrates the contributions of immigrants. Both coins are from the author’s private collection.

What specific freedoms are they seeking?

Discussions of the Statue of Liberty inevitably lead to conversations on the meaning of freedom. Many U.S. permanent residents voice opinions that are readily understandable to native born Americans. For example, a young woman from China said she came here to study and to reunite with her family. For both a Columbian woman and an Iranian man, freedom meant educational opportunities for their children. The ability to send their children to public schools was also echoed by a young couple from Brazil— who added happily that in America there are good roads to drive to the schools.

The candid, earnest answers of other students often challenge me to see the United States in new ways. Personal safety is on the minds of many Green Card holders. For instance, an older woman from Guatemala confided that, since living in the United States, she can walk on the street and not be afraid her necklace will be stolen. For a young man from Cote d'Ivoire, freedom is the lack of war. Others, including a Peruvian man, said what is most important is that in the United States there is respect for the law.

Finally, some students expressed hopes that sounded familiar, but took on a new and poignant meaning because of their background. For example, several Ukrainians expressed the hope of making a better life for their kids and finding opportunities to work. These students had begun to prepare for U.S. citizenship before Russia's invasion of their homeland in February 2022.

Do they feel welcome in the midst of current U.S. social and political tensions?

A Gallup Poll taken in June 2023 found that 68% of Americans think that immigration is a good thing for the country. However, the debate over who should be allowed entry continues. Adult students preparing for U.S. citizenship appear to be aware of the challenges they face. Once again, I've found that the image of an object from the museum's collections helps the class to focus conversation on a sensitive topic. The Immokalee Statue of Liberty is a papier-mâché sculpture made by Kat Rodriguez, a Latina artist, in support of a Florida coalition of agricultural workers seeking better wages and working conditions. This statue is both Lady Liberty and an advocate for immigrant workers.

A young construction worker from El Salvador admitted in class that he faces inequality on the job. He revealed that he is discriminated against and called names because of his darker skin. But he remains optimistic and spoke eloquently about the Statue of Liberty's promise of freedom.

Similarly, a student from Algeria expressed the hope that in the United States she can be both a Muslim and an American. She believes that you just have to obey the law.

The Immokalee Statue of Liberty
The Immokalee Statue of Liberty is holding a tomato in her right hand instead of a torch, and a basket of tomatoes in her left hand instead of a tablet. Her bronze skin tone represents workers from Mexico and Central America who labor on U.S. farms. On her pedestal is the message: “I, too, am America!” You can learn more about the statue and its interpretation in the museum from Smithsonian Education.  (2004.0057.01)

Are they prepared for U.S. citizenship?

A 2018 survey by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars found that only 36% of adult Americans could pass the Naturalization Test administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In contrast, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reports that just under 90% of U.S. permanent residents passed the Naturalization Test on their initial try.

It's clear that in addition to understanding American history and civics, Green Card holders embrace values that coincide with the enduring American national identity: a pragmatic, can-do mentality; optimism for the future; and an innate sense of fairness.

Susan Laudicina is a volunteer curatorial assistant in the Division of Home and Community Life, working with Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs, curator of the history of education collections. She also teaches a history and civics course designed to prepare U.S. permanent residents (Green Card holders) for the U.S. Naturalization Interview and Test. Susan holds an MA in Political Science from Georgetown University and a Professional Certificate in Art Collections Management from New York University.