The immigration debate, like so many parts of American politics, is built in part on a lattice of symbols. It doesn't take much imagination to move from from images of people scaling corrugated fences or fording the Rio Grande to desaturated photos of immigrants in long lines in the tiled halls at Ellis Island. And if Ellis Island is the line art illustration depicting "immigration" in every elementary school textbook, Emma Lazarus' poem about the Statue of Liberty is the boldly colored pullquote.

"Give me your huddled masses" is a shorthand that serves for immigration reform advocates as a tricorner hat does for the Tea Party: A reminder that America's past held principles from which we've moved away. A search for "huddled masses" over the past 24 hours on Twitter shows that it was a popular response to President Obama's moves to shift how federal law enforcement deals with those who entered the country illegally. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," read one tweet from Mike Bird, "as long as Congress approves."

The quote is often described as an inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty. That's not exactly accurate. The full poem, which has essentially become the de facto meaning of the statue itself, is more powerful than the snippet we've got memorized.

The Statue of Liberty's actual title is "The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World." Designed by sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, its meaning was as straightforward as its title. Liberty is striding forward, broken shackles at her feet, bringing the light of liberty to the globe.


In its article about the unveiling of the statue in 1886, the Post didn't mention Lazarus' poem, "The New Colossus." It doesn't mention Ellis Island or immigration at all, in fact -- because Ellis Island wasn't yet an immigration center. The statue was, as schoolkids learn, a symbol of friendship between the United States and France, with fundraising for it focused on the centennial of the birth of our nation.

Fundraising was key. In 1876, Liberty's arm and torch were placed in Madison Square in New York, in an effort to boost fundraising efforts for the statue's construction and -- as important -- its base.

Fundraising was also the motivation for Lazarus' poem. As the New York Times reported in 1883, "The New Colossus" was read at an opening of art exhibits to help the Bartholdi Fund, which was used to defray costs of building the statue. The poem gets one sentence in the Times' story, after F. Hopkinson Smith, the director of the fund, thanked the ladies of the committees that acquired the exhibits and before he introduced the general chairman of fundraising.

This is Lazarus' sonnet, contrasting the Statue of Liberty -- as yet unbuilt in America! -- with the Colossus of Rhodes.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"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!"

Mother of exiles. Give me your tired, your poor, those yearning to breathe free.

But in 1886, when the statue was opened to the public, that poem wasn't on its base. New York was a center of immigration, but that's not what the statue was about, not yet, just as Ellis Island wasn't yet the hub of immigration that it would become.

It wasn't until 1903 that the link between Lazarus' words and the statue and Ellis Island and immigration was made physically. That year, a bronze plaque inscribed with "The New Colossus" was affixed to the statue's base.

Lazarus was not alive for that event. She died of cancer in 1887, only a little over a year after the statue was unveiled. Nor was the poem included in a collection of her work that was published in 1926 because, as Robert Pinsky wrote for the Post in 2005, her sister forbade it, given that "so much of Lazarus's material was Jewish."

Another century on, Lazarus' words are among the first that come to mind when discussing America's history of immigration; they are used as a short-hand for the meaning of the statue itself. Lazarus, of course, was the descendant of immigrants herself, arrivals from Portugal who settled in a New York that was the entry point to the United States for millions of others.