ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The White House proposal to limit immigration struck one reporter as violating the promise of the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty. It reads in part, (reading) give me your tired, your poor. White House adviser Stephen Miller countered that the poem was added later and was not part of the original statue. Technically he's right, but NPR's Tom Gjelten says there's more to this story.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The Statue of Liberty was a gift to the American people from some French liberals. Its official name was Liberty Enlightening the World. It came with a condition. The Americans had to pay for the statue's pedestal. The young Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus was asked in 1883 to contribute a poem to a fundraising effort. The result - her sonnet "The New Colossus." She had of course not yet seen the statue, only drawings. But she imagined what Lady Liberty might say.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp, cries she with silent lips. Give me your tired, your...
GJELTEN: Lazarus had been advocating greater acceptance of Russian Jews fleeing pogroms. Her biographer Esther Schor says Lazarus saw the fundraising appeal as an opportunity to promote the refugee cause more generally.
ESTHER SCHOR: I think this sonnet is part of that effort, her realization that this was really the mission for the country, not simply a Jewish matter.
GJELTEN: She was not alone in seeing the statue as sending a message to refugees. Schor cites a reception in New York for the French sculptor Frederic Bartholdi.
SCHOR: The first line of the welcoming speech for him was, here we have a statue that welcomes the stranger.
GJELTEN: But that was a minority view. 1886, when the statue was erected, was actually a time of great opposition to immigration in the United States. Edward Berenson, who wrote a book on the history of the statue, says there was in fact a great outcry over how immigrants arriving in New York Harbor by boat were sullying Lady Liberty.
EDWARD BERENSON: We had political cartoons everywhere with the Statue of Liberty holding her nose as the rubbish of Europe was being shoveled at her feet.
GJELTEN: The poem by Emma Lazarus was not attached to the statue until 1903 and then with little attention. Edward Berenson says it was the immigrants themselves who saw Lady Liberty as welcoming them just as Lazarus had anticipated.
BERENSON: Just because of the way the narrows are in New York Harbor, all the boats coming in practically had to touch the Statue of Liberty. And so you have stories of people bursting out in tears when they see the statue. They say that they feel safe for the first time.
GJELTEN: So, true, give me your tired, your poor was not a poem associated originally with the Statue of Liberty. But that became the message, one that endures to this day. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.