The story behind 'The New Colossus' poem on the Statue of Liberty and how it became a symbol of immigration

The poem has again been catapulted into a heated debate on immigration.

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

These iconic words from "The New Colossus," the 1883 poem written by American Emma Lazarus etched in bronze and mounted on the Statue of Liberty's pedestal, have again been catapulted into a heated political debate on immigration.

The Trump administration announced a "public charge" rule on Monday that could drastically limit legal immigration by denying green cards for those who qualify for food stamps, Medicaid, housing vouchers and various forms of public assistance.

Some reporters invoked "The New Colossus" when asking acting Director of the Citizenship and Immigration Services office Ken Cuccinelli about the new rule.

In defending the policy, Cuccinelli suggested to NPR on Tuesday that those lines should be rewritten to say "give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge."

According to Alan Kraut, a professor of history at American University, language restricting immigration for those likely to become a public charge appeared in U.S. legislation as early as 1891, and throughout its history, the United States has courted immigrants but simultaneously "repelled them and was very not welcoming to [them] when they arrived."

Since then, the Statue of Liberty has evoked passionate feelings as a symbol of freedom and immigration -- and America's push and pull with it.

Early symbolism

The Statue of Liberty was the idea of Edouard Laboulaye, a French abolitionist and jurist, who wanted to gift the United States something to symbolize freedom after the Civil War to also serve as a reminder of France and America's friendship, according to the National Parks Service.

"When Edouard Laboulaye, the French abolitionist, came up with the idea of the Statue as a gift from the French people to Americans, his intent was to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States," Maria Cristina Garcia, a professor of American studies and history at Cornell University, told ABC News via email. "One early draft of the statue had Lady Liberty holding broken shackles in her hand. The shackles are now located at her feet, and are barely visible unless you are very high up (by helicopter, for example), which is one reason why Americans have forgotten this history."

The statue was designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who, according to Kraut, was inspired by ancient symbols, including Libertas, the Roman goddess of liberty.

"Initially, immigration was not one of the things that inspired the Statue of Liberty for Laboulaye or Bartholdi but there was a transformation and Lazarus's poem is part of that transformation," Kraut, who chairs the History Advisory Committee of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island, said in a phone call with ABC News.

Emma Lazarus and The New Colossus

Lazarus was a young poet and social activist living in New York City of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish descent who could trace her roots back to the first Jews who came to North America, according to the National Park Service.

Three years before the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in Bedloe's Island in the New York harbor, Lazarus was asked to write a poem as part of an arts festival to help raise money for the statue's pedestal.

The poem's title, "The New Colossus," was inspired by "The Colossus of Rhodes" -- the ancient statue of the Greek sun-god Helios on the island of Rhodes.

At the time, Lazarus was involved in charitable work for refugees and was active in aiding Russian Jews who were trying to escape to the United States. According to Kraut, "Immigration and freedom of the oppressed was very much on her mind when writing this poem."

Lazarus died of illness in 1887 -- one year after the Statue of Liberty was dedicated by President Grover Cleveland in October 1886.

It was not until 1903 -- nearly 20 years after Lazarus' death -- that the bronze plaque bearing the iconic sonnet would be added to the statue's pedestal, after her friend Georgina Schuyler found a book in 1901 containing "The New Colossus" and launched an effort to commemorate Lazarus' work.

"The poem, like the shackles, is not immediately visible," Garcia, who is also a member of the History Advisory Committee of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island, said. "The fact that we are conscious of these powerful and deeply moving words today is because of the generations of artists, editorialists, and politicians, who have continually reminded us of their power."

Lady Liberty and the New York Harbor

The location of the Statue of Liberty in the New York harbor -- a major receiving port for immigrants in the 19th century -- was a defining factor in the statue's symbolic "transformation," Kraut said.

During the 1880s through the early 1920s, there was "a peak period of immigration to the United States," according to Kraut, where 23.5 million immigrants seeking religious and political liberty and economic opportunity traveled to the United States.

"By the end of the 19th century there is an immigration flow that is very heavily southern and eastern European, and they are coming in great numbers, and they're, of course, passing the Statue of Liberty," Kraut said.

Bledsoe's Island was renamed Liberty Island in 1956.

According to Garcia, it is the stories of these immigrants who were greeted by the majestic Lady Liberty as they sailed past Ellis Island that defined the statue as a symbol of immigration.

"Popular culture also played a role in reinforcing this association," Garcia said. "Think of all the Hollywood movies that show the Statue as a backdrop for an immigrant character's arrival, from Charlie Chaplin's ‘The Immigrant,' [1917], to Francis Ford Coppola's 'The Godfather, Part II,' [1974]."

And according to Kraut, discrimination against immigrants has been a "pervading" part of American history. In fact, a year before "The New Colossus" was written, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Garcia echoed this notion, adding that in the early 20th century, anti-immigration advocates were motivated by a "fear" of southern and eastern Europeans who were arriving in large numbers and were considered "culturally inferior and unassimilable."

"Today, restrictionists like Trump want to bar entry to immigrants who are coming largely from Asia, the Americas, and Africa, and that view is also motivated, in part, by fear," Garcia wrote. "But in every generation, we also see people who advocate and fight for continued immigration -- business leaders, human rights activists, faith communities -- because they feel that immigration is good for the nation. Which perspective ultimately defines this generation is anyone's guess."