Closer Readings Commentary

Statue of Liberty


In August of 1884, on the shore of New York Harbor, the cornerstone was laid for what is today one of the most recognized monuments in the United States: the Statue of Liberty. The statue’s location, overlooking Ellis Island, meant that in the years to come the “Mother of Exiles” would be one of the first things millions of immigrants would see when entering the United States. In August of 1894, ten years after the monument’s cornerstone was set in place, Congress created the Bureau of Immigration to oversee the thousands of newcomers who were greeted by the statue every year.

The Statue of Liberty was a gift from France meant to celebrate our countries’ shared respect for freedom. This is certainly what it symbolized for millions of immigrants who arrived in New York Harbor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this time many people fled eastern and southern Europe, seeking freedom from religious persecution and economic hardship. These immigrants crossed the Atlantic Ocean to New York where they were transferred to Ellis Island for inspection. Immigrants were examined by doctors to make sure they were not carrying diseases and were healthy enough to hold a job. Immigrants were also interviewed to make sure they were not criminals. If an immigrant passed the inspections, which usually took several hours, he or she was free to enter the country.

You can visit Ellis Island by taking a virtual tour of the inspection station, and you can also follow the steps of an individual immigrant by reading the story of Seymour Rechtzeit of Poland. The national park service is keeping the public connected and engaging many in the Statue of Liberty experience. You don’t need a ferry ticket to New York harbor to climb her pedestal, tweet her majesty and share in photos by Lady Liberty Finds Her Voice on Twitter, Flickr and Virtual Tour from

An exciting new feature, Torch Cam, has been added to give virtual visitors unmatched panoramic live views from the Statue of Liberty torch, a location that has been closed to the public since 1916.  One provides a front row seat to the New York City skyline, along with the majestic Hudson River and ships in New York Harbor. Two other cameras point back at the Statue for ultra wide-angle interactive views of the famed golden torch and the crown, tablet and feet.

To view more photos of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, check out the following links from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory Project at the Library of Congress:

Your Ancestry

Ellis Island functioned as an immigration station from 1892 to 1954. In that time, more than twelve million people came through its gates from places like Germany, Poland, Russia, Hungary, Italy, and Ireland. More than forty percent of Americans today have an ancestor who arrived in the United States at Ellis Island.

What do you know about your ancestors? Do you know where they came from? How they traveled to the United States? Where they settled? What jobs they held? Ask a family member to help you investigate where your ancestors came from. Maybe your parents or grandparents are immigrants, or perhaps you yourself came to the United States from a different country. Interview whomever you can to learn how and why your ancestors came to the United States. Once you discover one or more of your ancestral homelands, select the region and country from the MapMaker Interactive Tool at National Geographic, from the EDSITEment-reviewed website National Geographic Education, and learn more about those countries while creating your own map!

Immigrants Today

Immigrants continue to come to the United States from all over the world. But people who come to the United States today have a very different experience than those who arrived at Ellis Island a century ago. What do you know about immigrants today? Check your knowledge about the men, women, and children who seek new lives in the United States today by taking a quiz at the EDSITEment-reviewed website “The New Americans.”

Once you’ve clarified some basic facts about immigrants in general, learn about some specific immigrants who are creating homes for themselves in the United States today, also through the EDSITEment-reviewed website, “The New Americans.”


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Suggested Activities


While investigating where your ancestors came from, you can use the information you find to create a “Heritage Journal.” In a notebook, collect facts and pictures that show what’s special about your ancestors’ homeland(s). You may want to include:

  • The national flag
  • A map of the country
  • Popular recipes or foods from the country
  • Popular songs from the country
  • Pictures of the people and the landscape

Use the MapMake Interactive resource at National Geographic from the EDSITEment-reviewed National Geographic Education to help you. 

EDSITEment lesson, Where I Come From, provides guidance as student research into their heritage.

To learn more about the statue as a symbol of freedom and to explore its meaning today, see Statue of Liberty: The Meaning and Use of a National Symbol.


Do the words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” sound familiar? In 1902, the poem “The New Colossus” was placed at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty. Emma Lazarus wrote this poem in 1883, just before work was begun on the statue’s pedestal. Read the poem at the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets website and decide why you think it was placed on the Statue of Liberty.

To learn more about the statue and the poem, see The Statue of Liberty: Bringing the 'New Colossus' to America.


Throughout the history of the United States, immigration policy has changed dramatically. Members of Congress, interest groups, and international conflicts have all played important roles in shaping the experience of immigrants. In the 1900s, nativism, a belief in the superiority of native-born Americans, was a prominent idea. This led to discrimination against many immigrants, especially those from eastern and southern Europe who were supposedly inferior to their predecessors from northern Europe. During and after World War I, fear of political radicals and enemy aliens spread throughout the nation and Ellis Island became a detention center for such suspects. After being held on the island for a time, many were deported.

In the 1920s, the island was once again used primarily as an immigration station, but legislation led to sharp decreases in the number of immigrants entering the U.S. each year. Laws were passed that placed yearly quotas on immigrants based on how many people from their homeland were currently residing in the United States. The number of immigrants from a particular country could not be more than 3% of that nation’s population in the United States at the time. For example, if there were 4,000,000 Italians in the United States in 1925, then only 120,000 (3% of 4,000,000) new Italians could enter the country that year.

Not all Americans were supportive of the newly-imposed quota laws. Read the following speeches by two members of Congress, one condemning the proposed law with an "Un-American Bill," the other, "Shut the Door," suggesting the law was not strict enough. Both speeches are found at the EDSITEment-reviewed website, History Matters. This contentious issue is also addressed in the EDSITEment lesson plan Pearl S. Buck: “On Discovering America.” Buck was a a strong proponent of a more open immigration policy. What are the arguments put forth by the two Congressmen (one for and the other against liberalizing immigration policy) and Buck and what evidence or historical basis do they use to support their thoughts?

EDSITEment-reviewed website, Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930, documents the voluntary immigration to the US from the signing of the Constitution to the onset of the Great Depression and includes an overview of the Statue of Liberty's place in that story.

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